The Hardest Words to Say - thrive UMC Official Blog

The Hardest Words to Say

The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”

So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.

Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”

Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”

He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”

10 Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord, because he had told them.)

11 They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)

12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

            For the better part of this past year, the words of Jesus on the cross have been stuck in me.  It’s almost like that incessant nasal drip that we get this time of year, where it’s itching at the back of your throat, and you want to dislodge it, but you just can’t.  And even if you do, two minutes later, it’s back again. Over and over I keep bumping into the same sentence in books, and in conversations, and it keeps coming up from the depths of my unconscious, often in unexpected circumstances, there it is: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” 

            And what’s really hooked me most lately is the last part –the part about not knowing what they’re doing. Because here the suggestion is that if only they had known better, or differently, then chances are they wouldn’t have done the terrible thing they did. 

            If only the Roman officials and Jewish temple authorities had really known who Jesus was and what God was doing with him, they wouldn’t have murdered him.

            If only our own governmental officials and leaders were more fully aware of the negative impact their actions have on our country’s most vulnerable populations, then maybe they would have done things a bit differently.

            If only I would have known how hurtful some of the things I’ve said to people I love could be, then I certainly would have never said them.

            If only my seven-year-old daughter would come to understand that I know SO MUCH MORE than she does right now, then maybe she wouldn’t drive me over the brink of insanity by trying to correct me on some very basic life-facts, every single day!

            And if I could only remember what it was like to be seven, and to be assaulted with overwhelming mounds of information that often conflicts, then I would also, certainly, be more patient with her struggle to work things out.

            “Father forgive all of us, for we don’t know what we’re doing.”

            How many sins, and how much suffering, could be avoided in our world today if only we knew better –if only we knew more fully how our actions affect other people and ourselves?

            Just look at our own denomination: in case you didn’t know, the world United Methodist Church is in something of a tizzy right now, because at the end of February, our General Conference is going to try and decide (again) the best way to deal with the messy topic of human sexuality.  Most specifically, they’re trying to find ways to help all of us deal with questions like: should people who are gay be ordained as pastors in our denomination? Should our pastors in local congregations –churches like this one- be allowed to marry same-sex couples?  And more generally, how should we view sexual orientations, and gender issues, in all their varied forms faithfully?

            Of course our denomination has been wrestling with these questions for several decades already, and what’s happened is that people –over the course of many years- have started to align themselves into camps. And then they go around and try to get other people to join their camp, in an effort to push things in the direction they want our church to go.  And the whole thing is a huge mess.

            But what makes this debate particularly divisive is that no one is willing to admit the saving, peace-making words into the discussion.  One little phrase could trigger the safety-release valve on this whole pressure-cooker of a now-global anxiety. One simple sentence could breathe wisdom and forgiveness into our shared human pursuit of holiness –but no one wants to be the one to say it.  So for decades now, we’ve been playing a kind of high-stakes game of chicken, where everyone is waiting to see if the other camps will swerve, last minute, before we all explode in a catastrophic collision of hellfire together.  

            And here’s the thing: I’ll bet at least a few of you are clever enough to have already figured out what the needed words are.  But our great sin –and it’s probably the greatest sin our species is capable of- is that we won’t allow ourselves to let it pass our lips.  Oh no –we tell ourselves- that’s a phrase that’s for somebody else –somebody less morally or intellectually robust than ourselves.  These are words that have to be said only and always by the other camp, right?

            But to help us find the courage –and even the wisdom­– to say these words, in order to move forward together, we’re going to spend the next few weeks going over the story of Jonah from the Bible.  And the portion of the story we’ve read today has a pretty simple three-point plot arc. It starts off with a call from God; then the prophet responds; and then finally, there is a resolution.  So we’re going to look at those three parts: Call, response, and resolution. It’s a very simple structure; but it is not at all a simple story. 

            First of all, with the very first line, we hear the word of God that was issued to the prophet Jonah: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” So that’s part one.  Okay.

            Part two: In response to God’s call to go to Nineveh, Jonah gets up and jumps on a boat to go… to Tarshish.  Now, in case all of you aren’t up to speed on your ancient Mediterranean Geography, let me show you a map.

            You’ll notice that on the east side of the Map is Nineveh, which I’ve circled in red. Jonah is in the city of Samaria, which I’ve marked with a red dot, kind of in the middle.  And while there’s some debate about the historic location of the city of Tarshish, most scholars have concluded that it’s located in either present-day Italy, or Spain.  And that would mean Jonah is going way off the map into the West.  Do you see what’s happening here?  The text actually says that he is ‘fleeing from the LORD!’

            So that is the whole pretext for everything that follows: God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and he sets sail to get as far away from the place to which God has called him as possible.  And the question we’re invited to ask is: ‘why?’  Why would a man of God –someone who has been chosen to be a living mouth-piece for God’s voice- so flagrantly refuse to heed God’s word?

            Full disclosure here, we’re not going to come to a full answer to this question for two more weeks.  But let me just share with all of you a few details about Nineveh.  First of all, Nineveh is not in Israel. It is instead the capital city of Assyria, which may have been the world’s first conquering empire.  And to have the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob send a prophet to leave his own people to ‘cry out’ against another nation, on their soil, is –I think- completely without precedent in the Hebrew Bible.

            And to add to that, the Assyrians had a wide spread publicity-campaign to let all of their neighbors know that absolutely no one was to ever mess with them.  The Assyrians notoriously used human corpses to create horror-art.  They impaled people on poles, and flayed all of the skin off to make canopies; they randomly mutilated and dismembered people who fought against them and surrendered.

            And God wants Jonah to go to their house and cry out against their evil?

            What could possibly go wrong? 

                     So Jonah gets on a boat to anywhere-but-Nineveh. And let’s be honest: who can blame him?  But then here’s what happens: God doesn’t leave him alone.  Instead, this huge wind and terrible storm kicks up while they’re in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and it threatens to tear the boat apart.  And even the sailors are panicking –it says they each cry out in terror to their own god, and they start throwing cargo overboard to reduce the stress on the ship. 

            Meanwhile, in the midst of the storm, Jonah is sound asleep below deck.  And the sailors, stumbling upon him, shake him awake, wanting to know how he could possibly be sleeping so deeply in a time like this! But it’s like they can’t even stop moving for a second, because then, all of a sudden, they’re casting lots, trying to divine: why is this heavenly disaster threatening our lives?

             Very briefly, I just want to hit the pause button on the story for a second, because I know that some of this sounds superstitious and absurd to our twenty-first century, ‘enlightened’ ears. Most of us don’t believe all storms come because somebody somewhere did something wrong.  Unfortunately, we don’t have time to go over the metaphysics of it today; but at least for now, I want you to be able to see the symbolic significance of this part of the story.  Because all of us have experienced disruption and the sudden eruption of chaos into our lives, haven’t we? 

            All of us have had moments where we’ve felt like we’re little-bitty boats tossed around like dixie cups on vast, raging seas. 

            And all of us have had times where the circumstances around us have felt so out of control that we doubted we’d survive it. 

            And all of us will –if we haven’t already- have experiences of extreme turmoil, where we’ve looked around in our little boat of a world and felt convicted: all of this terrible crap we’re going through is happening because of the decisions that somebody, somewhereis making! And chances are, it’s the fault of somebody on this vomit-stinking boat! Right?

             Now, maybe it wasn’t you at the center of the storm.  In fact, probably it wasn’t.  Maybe it was someone you love, or maybe just someone you know. 

            But I’ll bet that just about all of us have at least one person in our life who lives in a near-constant state of Armageddon-level storms.  Other people at work are routinely getting them fired, so they hop from dead-end job to dead-end job. Or they are just really unlucky in automobiles –like their cars are magnets for things like people who run red lights and suicidal light-poles. Or somehow, inexplicably, all of these relationships with nice-looking, terrible people turn out to be: surprise, surprise: absolute disasters.  Every.  Time.

            And then somewhere along the line, at some point in the storm, they finally come to the moment where they start to wonder: why is this disaster happening to me

            Or what’s often even more painful: we have someone in our family whom we love that keeps bringing their storms home, and to family gatherings, with them! And someone’s gotta do something, or else they’re gonna sink this whole ship and we’re all going down together! All of this happens, but we know who’s responsible for the storm!

            Well in this particular case, it turns out that the terrible storm is because of Jonah. Everyone is reading the signs, and it turns out there’s no denying it. So here we find ourselves at part three of the introduction to this story: the resolution. Jonah himself makes the announcement: “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” 

            Here Jonah comes to confront his choices, and the severe disruption they brought.  And only under the pressure of God’s gale-force winds does he realize their consequences bring disaster not only upon himself, but also upon those who just happen to be close to him!  There, the only resolution left is to resign himself.  The jig is up; toss me out!  It was my fault. Game over.

            Here at last we see a model for someone daring to speak the needed words in a moment of dire contention: ‘it’s my fault.’ ‘I was wrong.’  ‘I am responsible.

            Uhg!  Are there any words in the English language that are harder to spit out than: ‘I was wrong?’ Those words chaff against my very soul!  I hate being wrong, even about little things.  And what I hate even more is when other people see that I’m wrong! Because was sure I knew!  And if I have to admit that I could be wrong about that then what else could I be wrong about?  I could be wrong about everything!  And ah! when you really stop and confront the limits and faults of what you know, in the midst of your storms, it feels like a resignation to despair.  To admit that you’re wrong feels like a forfeiture of your public voice in the world, because we imagine that it undermines other people’s trust in us.   

            Isn’t that how it feels?

But here’s the other side of it: when was the last time you heard those hateful words come out of someone else’s mouth?  Really: think of a time where something serious was going on and the whole ship was going to go down unless someone took the plunge?  Have you ever had an experience where  there was a conflict over something that really mattered and someone stood up and took responsibility for it? 

            Now think immediately: what was your reaction?

            I’ll bet it was some varied form of ‘oh thank God!’ Thank you Kristen, or whoever, for saying the thing I didn’t have the courage to say.  And here’s the tremendous blessing–a life-saving miracle: once someone can break the calamitous silence and admit that they had at least some part to play in the disaster that’s unfolding, doesn’t it become infinitely easier for the others there in the room to make the same admonition?  When we can set a president and an atmosphere that people will be wrong, and that’s okay –just as long as we can own it –then doesn’t that lay the very foundations for Godly peace?  Doesn’t that help us move toward the much-needed virtue of humility.

            After all, what’s this all about?  Why are we here in this church right now?  Isn’t it because we need Jesus?  Isn’t it because we don’t know all the stuff we need to know, or have all the healthy relationships we need to have? Doesn’t it all start with something not being right in our lives?  Isn’t it because we need forgiveness?

            Therefore there is no shame in being wrong.  Indeed, it’s completely unavoidable, and speaking it can even be a blessing that grows into peace on earth.  So may we have the courage to own our unknowing and our wrongs, so that we can be restored.  For this is the path that leads us to a greater knowledge.

            Let’s pray.