Leaving our Nets
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Our two lectionary texts tell of two very different callings. The first story we drop into is one of the high points of the book of Jonah. I know for many of us Jonah is a story we don’t often think about as adults; too often it is left to children. It is often understood as some odd story about a fish, and frankly it is a pretty misunderstood and misinterpreted book. The story is really a satire that teaches a moral lesson. Jonah’ s name is translated to mean “dove” and a “dove” in the Hebrew scriptures are overwhelming understood in a positive light, like the “dove” that informs Noah that the waters are finally receding and they can get out of the ark. Jonah is the son of Amittati which means “faithfulness”, so Jonah the “dove” son of “faithfulness” receives the word of the Lord to go to Nineveh. Of course, the son of “faithfulness” will follow God’s will and bring the word to the Ninevites, whom God has heard their cry of a pagan nation. So instead the “dove” boards a ship that is going in the opposite direction and heads out sea. He is apparently on board with some very religious but pagan sailors. For as soon as a storm appears, they begin praying and asking questions about which local deity could be causing this storm. The “dove” proclaims that his God is the “God of everything, of heaven, the sea and the dry land.” Then he tells these sailors to throw him overboard. You can interpret this request by Jonah in one of two ways — either he is actually concerned for the life of the sailors or Jonah is thinking he might be able to flee this calling even further by being thrown overboard and drowning. Rather than comply, this request just causes these sailors to row even harder. Jonah the dove prays and his prayer convinces the sailors to toss him into the sea. These sailors are suddenly converted and begin making sacrifices to the Hebrew God. As the smoke is wafting over these sacrifices, a great fish swallows the bird. The fish instead of eating the bird, transports Jonah the dove to the great city of Nineveh. The prophet walks a couple of blocks into the city, stands on a street corner covered in fish spume and simply says in “Forty more days, and Nineveh will be overthrown”. This sermon converts the entire city. The animals were even repenting of their sins. Surely the son of “faithfulness,” Jonah the “dove” will be overjoyed by their sudden conversion. This engaging sermon has converted the world’s worst city. Instead Jonah finally tells the truth. He reveals why he fled in the first place, telling God that I knew if they heard your word they would be converted and that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4.2). God responds to him asking “Should I not be concerned with Nineveh?”
This story has a lot to unpack; Jonah did not experience joy or excitement. In fact we see little change in Jonah throughout the tale. But what we do see is God’s faithfulness, God slow to Anger and abounding in Love for all people. Understood in its context it is really a bold story contained in the Hebrew scriptures. The only people who truly act faithfully in the story are the Sailors and the Ninevites who were enemies of the Hebrew people and by extension enemies of the Hebrew God.
Nineveh was the seat of Assyrian oppression toward the Hebrew people. This city represented a culture and society that was living against God’s shalom or God’s peace that was truly keeping people from flourishing. Jonah represents a prophet who is called to speak to an overwhelming power and call it to repentance and change. He in short, he was called to confront a system of oppression. We don’t often think about systems of oppression, partially because these systems are often hidden in plain sight, and partially because of privilege, and partially because they are very complex problems.
I am sure many of us have heard of the concept of a food desert — a location often in an urban or rural area where there is limited access to high quality healthy food. In the US it is projected that at least 24 million people live in food deserts. In fact, the York Daily Record ran a series of articles about this a few years ago, describing portions of York City as a food desert.  We know that a poor diet leads to negative health outcomes, disease, and a reduced life expectancy. What we don’t fully understand is how issues like this arise. Some of it is driven by market driven forces, an area might not be able to financially support a store, or the population is too sparse, and other times it is driven by neighborhood change and turnover.
Communities and churches all across our country have responded to this in creative and imaginative ways. In 2015 after the death of Freddy Gray and the aftermath that followed, schools and business were closed in the city of Baltimore. The lockdown continued for two weeks. Leaving children without free or low-cost meals from school, and because public transportation was shutdown, many people couldn’t travel to get food they needed. Pleasant Hope Baptist Church began receiving phone calls from people struggling with hunger. The congregation quickly responded giving help to those in need, driving around the city, delivering food, and helping their neighbors. This experience sparked a larger vision. They transformed their small urban campus into a small urban farm growing over a thousand pounds of produce annually. This experiment then morphed again as the church started a seasonal farmers market, where they sold this produce alongside a network of regional farmers. Reinvesting any money they made to grow and incentive a network of churches in the city of Baltimore to begin similar ministries.  This was a unique response born out of dire circumstances. But it was a response rooted in their ethos as a congregation. The ethos to love neighbor as self, the ethos to be a caring community. This was a response that was a born out of a call, a call to confront an unseen system of oppression and a call to get out of the boat and fish for people by meeting a real-world need.
Last week, your session empowered a small working group to begin the process of thinking about the future of Eastminster. Empowering them to begin looking at different methods to develop a strategic plan and begin a process that will help us discover together the future God is calling us to. In the coming months you will begin to hear more about this process and about this developing conversation. I know the strategy that is born will be out of our ethos as a congregation and will help us to look at how we need to adapt to our world and the problems we are facing as a congregation and as a community. This is an exciting time as we continue to discern God’s call for Eastminster. I would encourage you to be in prayer for your session and your pastor as they begin to weigh the recommendation from this group as we continue the work of getting out of the boat, leaving our nets behind, and following Jesus into our future. Let’s pray….