Questions We Didn’t Ask - thrive UMC Official Blog

Questions We Didn’t Ask

Last week we started reading the story of Jonah, whom God called to prophesy in the foreign city of Nineveh.  But instead of going where he was sent, Jonah gets on a boat and heads the opposite direction.  And then this big storm rises up while they’re on the boat, and it turns out that’s Jonah’s fault, and our reading ended with him telling the sailors they needed to throw him overboard in order to calm the seas.

            Our first reading for today picks up immediately from where we left off last week.  We’re reading the concluding verses of the first chapter of Jonah.  It says this:

13 The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. 14 So they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. 16 The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.

            I wanted to make sure we read this passage, because it illustrates a particular, and very unique, quality that this story has among all of the other books of the bible.  Here, when Jonah announces that the sailors must throw him into the sea in order for their lives to be saved, at first they don’t do it.  They try instead to row ashore.  And then, when they cry out to God, using the Hebrew, holy designation, they cry out that they don’t want to be responsible for Jonah’s death.  In their eyes, he might be innocent.  In their eyes, he seems to be a holy man, to a powerful god. But then they obey, seemingly with regret. 

            So what we can see here is a group of people expressing compassion for their foreign neighbor in their midst. Instead of kicking him off the ship, they instead get the whole crew to try and row to shore.  And not only that, but they demonstrate reverence for God, and they end up obeying God, and they worship and sacrifice and make holy promises to God.  And is it Jonah –God’s official prophet in Israel- who does all this?   No, it’s gentile sailors –and even today, what kind of reputations do sailors have?  Sailors swear! … holy promises to God, yes they do; it says so right in the Bible.

            Of course we can find other stories in the bible that feature gentiles –people who are not Israelites- doing the right things.  But what makes the story of Jonah so scandalous and even dangerous is that it will unrelentingly prompt a comparison between the righteousness of the Israelites, and the righteousness of the gentiles.  And I’ll give you a bit of a spoiler alert: here the home team does not win.    

            This theme we find in Jonah is picked up again in the New Testament by Jesus.  In fact, we’ll read today a story that bears some dramatic similarities to the story we’ve just read about Jonah on the boat.  This story is found in Luke chapter 8 (although varied renditions of it also appear in Matthew and Mark).  Here Jesus, like Jonah, is traveling across a body of water to share his prophetic work with non-Israelites.  But unlike Jonah, Jesus has the courage to go.  And he brings along his disciples. We’re reading in Luke, chapter 8, verse 22 through 25.  Jesus and the disciples are on their way to the land of the Gerasenes, which was historically Greek in culture.  This is what it says:

22 One day Jesus and his disciples boarded a boat. He said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” So they set sail.

23 While they were sailing, he fell asleep. Gale-force winds swept down on the lake. The boat was filling up with water and they were in danger.24 So they went and woke Jesus, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” But he got up and gave orders to the wind and the violent waves. The storm died down and it was calm.

25 He said to his disciples, “Where is your faith?”

Filled with awe and wonder, they said to each other, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him!”

            Now –oh my!- there are so many things that are interesting about this story, especially as it relates to Jonah; but I want you all to notice just a few of them. [Slide]  First of all, note how the stories start out with similar premises: both involve a prophet on a boat to a foreign territory, where the trip is disrupted by a storm. In both cases, the prophet is sleeping while everyone else is freaking out. 

            By the way, this is a thing that many of the writers in the bible did: as they were telling a story, they would give little nods to other parts of the scriptures to draw connections and give clues as to what’s really going on. And that detail about Jesus being deeply asleep in the boat through the storm is like a footnote letting us know that some aspect of Jonah’s story is continuing on in Jesus’s story.

            Of course, after that the story in Luke and the story of Jonah unfold very differently.  Once the respective prophet of each story awakens, the stories lose their common arch.  Jonah has to be thrown into the sea for it to become calm; but –get this- Jesus only needs to speak!  He commands the storm, and it calms down. Here the Greek word for ‘command’ means ‘to give order.’  And through this action, it is revealed that Jesus was dealing with a different kind of storm, and he is not at all the same kind of man that Jonah was. And again, there’s a ton more stuff going on here; but what I want you to pay attention to is the passengers on the boat.

            In the Jonah story, we see these Gentile sailors looking like models of righteous action.  But in the gospel of Luke, after the waters grow still, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them: ‘Where is your faith?” He doesn’t chide them them of being afraid here, like he does in the parallel stories of Matthew and Mark. Instead he only asks a question about their faith. And this is kind of strange, isn’t it?  Because if Jesus isn’t criticizing them for being afraid, what’s the problem? 

            And here we’re invited to reimagine the story: what would have gone differently here if the disciples had possessed a powerful faith and acted out of it?  Are we to believe that the disciples should have instead boldly done nothing?  Should they have just been very confident and serene as the storm flooded their boat, and everyone drowns? Was that the day they were supposed to practice their swim-strokes?  Should they have maybe worked a little harder in bailing out the water and weathering things on their own, just without waking Jesus?

            Or, is Jesus maybe suggesting that they themselves could have commanded the storm to be calm –if they had only been more present in their faith? 

            Think about it: in the story of Jonah, the sailors were the ones to do the thing that brought the calm.  By actively throwing Jonah overboard, they were the ones who, in cooperation with God, reestablished peace.  They were the ones who came to an understanding of the problem; they were the ones who sought a resolution; and they were the ones who took the necessary action. And when what they tried didn’t work, they tried again.  Jonah, the prophet, didn’t take the plunge himself –he had to be tossed out! 

            Contrast that with the disciples –several of whom were raised as fishermen: fishermen of the very lake where this storm occurs!  Storms were frequent on the lake of Galilee, but suddenly on this day they find themselves completely helpless!  They don’t know what to do or how to do it.  Their sole redeeming virtue is that they happen to be in the boat with someone who frequently seems to know better. Then all of a sudden they’re going: ‘Wake up Jesus, just so you can watch us drown! Aaaaaaah!’

            To the storm, Jesus commands peace; but to the disciples he asks: “Where is your faith?”

            Isn’t it incredible how disruptive a simple question can be sometimes? 

             Two chapters earlier in Luke, the disciples were chosen to be apostles –ones who are sent out in faith.  Where’d that faith go when the storms showed up?  A bunch of gentile sailors did better; because in a similar situation they at least knew it was up to them to respond.  They didn’t sit helplessly by, throwing up their hands, or whine until someone else would take care of it for them.  They didn’t even pray, so far as we know.  Instead when anything bad or uncomfortable happens, they immediately turn to Jesus and shake him awake –do something Jesus, or we die! 

            Last week in this series, Blessed To Be Wrong, we identified the first step to working for peace in moments of chaos and conflict: it is to recognize that we don’t know. What we know now is not sufficient for righteous action. We are not God.  No matter how smart you think you are, you do not possess all of the knowledge that’s stored even in all of the heads of the people around you, because you have not had the experiences they have had.  So if we think we know, then Wisdom suggests maybe we should just take a moment and consider the possibility –however unlikely it may happen to be- that we could be wrong.  We could be wrong about our options for action, like the disciples were. We could be wrong about the nature of the storm –meaning we might be wrong about the other party’s motivations and perspective.  We could be wrong because we haven’t considered how our own words and actions might impact those around us, causing harm.   Because that’s the very heart of human conflict: we act and speak out of a too-limited knowing. 

            And today we’re going to explore step two of working toward peace, which is to ask questions.  Questions are an incredibly powerful means of conquering chaos and conflict because they invite sharing. Questions are essentially an invitation: help me in my unknowing.  A question is to say that I need you to overcome my poverty of understanding.   So questions turn our unknowing into an opportunity to receive a blessing.

            And we can see this play out brilliantly in the story we read from Jonah last week.  Here this huge storm comes along that’s powerful enough to tear apart a large commercial trading ship, and everyone’s panicking.  But then, starting in verse seven, suddenly these sailors just start spewing out all of these questions.  “Tell us,” they ask Jonah, “who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?  What kind of work do you do?  Where do you come from?  What is your country?  From what people are you?”  In the middle of a raging storm, it sounds like they’ve sat down to have a nice warm cup of tea together, doesn’t it?

            And if that weren’t enough, after Jonah responds, they go on: “What have you done?”  And then later: “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” 

            Isn’t that bizarre?  Half of the action-packed story we read last week is made up of questions and responses.  And at first they seem so silly –like if all of us were there, would any of us ever dream to turn to the person next to us and ask: ‘so I know this boat could go down at any moment, but please, tell me, who are your people and what are they like?’

            But when we look at the storm as metaphor, or manifestation, of interpersonal conflict, then these questions turn out be absolutely brilliant. 

[Slide] 

            Take a look: there are essentially three groupings of questions.  The first grouping consists of five questions, and they’re all about Jonah’s origin and identity.  They want to know who this trouble-maker is, where he’s been, and where he’s from.  Because his background will give them clues about the nature of the problem they’re facing.  And notice, they aren’t doing this for Jonah –they’re asking because they want to save their own skin.  Because they can’t solve their problem until they first come to know who they’re dealing with –and that often means digging a bit into the other people’s values, personality, and customs.  So that’s the first question: trouble-maker, who are you?

            The second they found out that Jonah is an Israelite prophet of a great and high God, and that he’s running away. Then they ask: “what have you done?”  This is an invitation into Jonah’s personal story.  Here they’re probably asking not only the actions that Jonah has taken to lead him to this particular circumstance; but they’re also inviting him to share his own experience of struggle and hardship, which have in turn brought the sailors trouble.  It’s interesting to note here how the story doesn’t even record Jonah’s response –it’s as if the question itself is more important than any answer he might give.

            But just imagine how helpful this question could be in moments of conflict –if we just gave people a chance to share about the things they have done, and what they were hoping to accomplish with the actions which seemed wrong to us.  This is one of those beautiful question that’s almost impossible to give a response to without telling a story.  And when it comes out, we’ll learn what the other side is hoping for, and also what they’re afraid of.  We’ll see where their heart was trying to take them, and what they want. 

            And only after all that comes out does the last question arise: “what should we do with you to make the sea calm down for us?

Now this is a question we all know to ask, don’t we?  We have no problem whatsoever embarking upon explorations about what should be done.  And I think of all the questions that were recorded in this story, this one is by far, our favorite.  In fact, we love this question so much, we tend to skip over the other two entirely.  Forget who that other person is and what he’s done and been through –guys, let’s decide: what do we do with this shmuck now? 

            But what makes this question unique in this story is that Jonah is invited first to share about what should be done with him. After the truth has come out, and after his share of the responsibility has been brought to light, he is invited to offer his suggestion for the next step.  The sailors don’t come up with a solution on their own; but they instead include Jonah in the decision for how this storm could be resolved.  Even though he might be guilty, his voice still matters –for he is the one who knows the god who brought this storm, after all.

            Today I just want invite you all to reflect for a moment about some of the storms we’re facing as a church and as a nation.  Who are the other people in the boat with us?  Do you know them?  Do you know where they’re from, and their values, and their customs?  Do you know them

            And do you know their story? Have you ever stopped to ask them, face to face, what they’ve been through?  Have you come to sympathize at least with their struggle?  Have you inquired not only about their actions, but also into their hearts?

            And finally, once you’ve come to know them and their story, have you invited them to have a place in naming the resolution?  Do the ones impacted by the decision that’s about to be made get a chance to shape the outcome? 

            Jonah is the one who ends up declaring that he should be thrown from the boat.

            It seems very likely that this suggestion is something the sailors would have been happy to oblige –after all their first concern was themselves.  So what’s a stranger compared to their safety and peace?  But the first two sets of questions wouldn’t allow Jonah to stay a stranger to those sailors any longer.  Once they came to know him, and once they heard his struggle with God, their first response was not to toss him out.  And this, brothers and sisters, is no small miracle.  Together, they tried to row the ship and save them all –but it turned out their powers were no match for what God demanded.  And God would not be refused.

            We read this story and we’re reminded: if only the prophet Jonah had been as wise and compassionate as these crafty sailors, there would have never been a call for a storm in the first place.  Let us turn to the God who gives all faith, so we might become a people who has the courage and compassion to ask the storm-calming questions.

            Let’s pray.    

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