In the Belly of a Whale or Walking on Responding to God's Call

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Cheryl McFadden on Sunday, January 24, 2021.

Let us pray. Lord, we come before you with hearts filled with gratitude for the peaceful transition of government. We pray for healing to begin now in our nation. Help us to be illumined by your Word and Sacraments as begin the process of reconciliation and direct us always to the radiance of Christ’s glory and love. Amen.

Along with the books of Ruth, Esther, and Job, the book of Jonah is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I like stories about people with admirable traits or with whom I can identify in my personal life. I admire Ruth and Esther for their courage, and Job because of his resilience. I like Jonah because I relate to the desire to prevaricate. God calls and I want to flee. “Please Lord, don’t ask me to do that. It’s too hard. It’s too demanding. It’s too complicated. Can’t you just ask me to do things that are not as hard?” Yes, I can relate to a man being told by God to do something difficult and not wanting to do it. Can any of you relate to Jonah? Jonah was told to go to a foreign land, i.e., an uncomfortable place, and tell the “great city” of Nineveh, i.e., someone bigger, someone stronger, someone with more clout in life, of their destruction and demise, because of their wickedness, because of their behavior, their attitude. Jonah, not wanting to do the hard thing, heads in the opposite direction in escape only to end up being swallowed by a large fish and spewed onto the shore three days later (hmm, Jonah in the belly of a fish for three days, Jesus in the tomb for three days. Is there a comparison to be made)? God has to tell him a second time, Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh,” you stubborn man (my interpretation) and tell them what I said. God calls us to do something and what is our response? The call could be to have a difficult conversation. What is our response?

I want you to think about the times in your life when God asked you to do something difficult. At the time, you may not have thought it was God telling you to do something, but you felt a nudge, a feeling in the pit of your stomach, to do something or to say something. I call this feeling the Holy Spirit. Maybe God was asking you to love someone despite your difference of opinion. Maybe God was asking you to forgive someone even though he, she or they hurt you. Did you do it, or did you turn the other way and run? Did you forgive them? Did you embrace that person who doesn’t agree with you? There are times when I have felt called to do things or say things and have run the other way. Invariably, every time I run away from God’s call, God knocks a second time on my head and tugs at my heart. My response is usually, “Really, God. You want me to ______ (fill in the blank). Have you ever thought that what you were being called to do was actually for your sake and not necessarily the other person’s? The call, which is often an ask, can be about your transformation.

The story of Jonah portrays our human response to God’s call. Like Jeremiah and Moses, Jonah tries to deflect or ignore God. You see, even our biblical ancestors didn’t like to do unpleasant or difficult things. We often think our biblical ancestors were always willing, always ready to do what God asked of them. In reality, they were no different than we are today. What is interesting about Jonah is that he preferred death over what God was asking of him. You may think you would never prefer death over responding to God’s call, but sometimes the choices we make are not life-giving, life-fulfilling, or life-perpetuating. Case-in-point, often we are called to love someone or a group of people who differ from us in terms of ideology: politically, religiously, culturally, in views, race, ethnicity or by sexual orientation. Regardless of the difference, regardless of the point of view, God calls us to love them as we love ourselves. How do we love someone or a group of people who are so very different from us? Make no mistake about it, we need to know this answer if we are to become a united people. We are a divided nation. We are a divided people, not simply in terms of our political differences.

In last week’s Sunday forum, Nancy R. Gibbs, former Editor-in-Chief of Time magazine and current director of the Shorenstein Center on Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, shared two practices for interacting with people who are different from us. It is my belief that if we engaged in these practices, we would learn to love those who differ from us as we are called to do so by God. First, we are to engage in active listening. We need to listen carefully and closely with what the other person is saying. We may not agree with their opinion, but the other person should know that we are listening to them. Margaret Guenther refers to this type of listening as “holy listening.” Others refer to this as empathic listening. Can you imagine how many divisions might be healed if the person or group of people who differed from us believed we were actually listening to them? Listening gives us the power to understand others in a way nothing else can. Stephen Covey says, “Effective listening is suspending judgment so you can truly understand what others are trying to tell you.” Maybe if people thought we were listening to them, that their voices were heard, there would be less shouting, less protesting, less violence in the world. Maybe these different voices might actually come together. Remember, harmony is when different voices group together to form a comprehensive whole. It’s very easy for us to be head and action-oriented, but it is very difficult for us to be heart-orientated. God calls us to listen with our heart.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together: “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them… Just as love of God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren [and all people] is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.” Nancy had it right when she said we need to engage in active listening. When we do so, we are taking the first step to loving the other person.

Nancy’s second practice is to seek commonality in other people. What do we have in common with someone or a group of people who differ from us? What did Jonah have in common with the people of Nineveh? My dear friends, it’s not complicated or sophisticated. What we have in common is our humanity, our shared parentage. We are all children of God. We are all created in the image of God. That one factor, this one point is the foundation of all commonality. We are all related, interconnected with one another because of our common heritage. The Brazilian Archbishop and liberation theologian Dom Hélder Câmara reminds us: “We all believe that all human beings are children of the same heavenly Father. Those who have the same father are brothers and sisters. Let us really treat each other as brothers and sisters!” [1]

Nancy shared that our commonality is more important than our differences. My take-away from Nancy’s forum “Truth, Tribes, and Trauma: Is Forgiveness Possible in Politics,” is also my take-away from the story of Jonah. We are often called to do the hard thing in life. We are often called to do the thing or things we don’t want to do, but we must if we are true believers in God. Jonah finally delivers God’s prophetic message to the people of Nineveh and what happened afterwards? The people repent; the people change, and God does not bring destruction upon them. When we do the hard thing, good things emerge.

The story of Jonah reminds us to do the hard thing, not to try to avoid it. The question we must ask is what is the hard thing God is calling us to do in our life? Friends, don’t take the plunge as Jonah did for three days in the belly of a fish but go in the direction that God is calling you the first time or stay tuned. God will call on you a second time. Amen.


[1] First address as Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, April 12, 1964. See Dom Hélder Câmara: Essential Writings, ed. Francis McDonagh (Orbis Books: 2009), 41.