1/16/12

preaching jonah

This coming Sunday is the one time in the three year cycle of the lectionary when a reading from the Book of Jonah is included. Alas, it is a short reading from the middle of the book - Jonah 3:1-5,10. This highlights the strength and the weakness of the lectionary. On the one hand, left to themselves how many preachers would get around to preaching Jonah once in three years? On the other hand, given the wonderful narrative in this short book ((it takes up all of two pages in my Bible) this particular passage is underwhelming at best. So this coming Sunday we are going to read the book of Jonah in its entirety. A group of students are preparing a reading of Jonah that will include Jonah 2:2-9 as the responsive psalm for the day. It is not often that we have the opportunity to read an entire book of the Bible in worship on Sunday. Here is the book of Jonah from Eugene Peterson's paraphrase The Message.

Now the question facing me on this Monday morning is what shape the sermon will take and what message it will bring. Looking back I have come across a couple of sermons that I have preached on Jonah at UHill over the years. The first is a sermon titled Jonah from 1997. That was a year before I began studies in missional theology and preaching at Columbia Seminary. I had been teaching homiletics at VST and was up to date on the latest wisdom from preaching teachers in North America. This particular sermon tries to apply the teachings of Tom Troeger - now at Yale - who suggested that in a visual age the sermon might, at times, take the form of a screenplay. This fascination with form has dominated much of the conversation about preaching in North America during my ministry. The conversation has largely been about rhetoric - how to convince and persuade a congregation, how to keep listeners interested and engaged, how to create an experience of the Word and not simply to transfer information. I remember working hard on that sermon and being disappointed in the result. I realized right away that it had been too cute and that the congregation really didn't know what to make of it. Experiences like that were key factors in the move to figural / typological preaching that resulted from my studies at Columbia Seminary.

The other sermon that I discovered in looking back is one titled Reluctant Testimony from 2000. It comes right in the midst of my Doctor of Ministry studies and was preached, in fact, on the day after returning from a two-week course. In that sermon I wove together my experience of the previous two weeks, locating myself as both a Ninevite and as one called like Jonah. It was a more satisfying sermon, one that still feels faithful. But it is now nine years old. Sermons, like manna, do not keep. They may be the bread of heaven when uttered but they cannot simply be re-used. Sermons become stale overnight. At best they can be recycled with their words, themes, images put back into the mix as a fresh proclamation of the Word is attempted.

Which bring me back to 2012. I am not yet at all sure how this week will unfold. We will meet to prepare the order of service on Wednesday. In selecting the music I always find new insight. Gerald has already suggested singing a version of Psalm 139 following the sermon: "You are before me, God, you are behind". It sounds like Jonah's song after being spit up on the beach. I remember that Eugene Peterson has written a book on the pastoral vocation called "Under the Unpredictable Plant". It is based on the book of Jonah. I will look for that tomorrow and read it for guidance and inspiration. I will look again at Jesus' reference to Jonah in Matthew 12:38-41. On Wednesday afternoon I will be among a group of representatives from five neighbouring churches as we begin a year long conversation about the future of the United Church in our area of the city. I wonder what the book of Jonah may say to our conversation?

However the sermon turns out I will remind myself that the main goal of reading and preaching the book of Jonah in worship on Sunday is to give this memory back to the church. I wonder how many people in the congregation - or in most congregations - can tell the story of Jonah? I suspect that the number is low. Yet the story is not complicated or lengthy. It has a quirky plot with ache and humour. It is a story that has informed Jews and Christians for centuries. If we do not know the story how can it inform our living? I am hoping that a good retelling of Jonah once in three years will help to overcome the communal amnesia that infects the church in these parts these days.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to Sunday and listening to a full reading of Jonah by Simon-Luc, Ryan and Caroline. I love Jonah. I love his faith in God. I love his typical humanity. He is so much like us. Typical in that he has trouble with forgiveness. Typical in that he doesn’t want God to be God. Typical in his running away from a God who cannot be outrun. Typical in his pouting like a child who isn’t getting his way. Untypical in his understanding that God is love. Untypical in his full understanding of this amazing forgiving God. God loves and Jonah cannot stand the idea of the God he loves bringing forgiveness to the enemy. Not an enemy, the enemy of the Hebrew people. Image being asked by God to bring a forgiving word to your worst enemy. Would we do?

    I love Jonah for bringing us a clearer understanding of our God.

    Blessings on your words this Sunday, may they bring us Good News.

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