When I was looking at seminaries, two of my top schools were in Chicago right across the street from one another in the Hyde Park neighborhood. My mom and I went to visit and we started to imagine what life would be like if I was there. My brother, Tony, was also attending school in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology – right near the White Sox stadium. I started envisioning hopping on the L and going to visit him and all of the possibilities.
But I remember as my eyes lit up, my mom looked back at me with a tiny bit of fear in her eyes. “Katie Marie” she said. “I don’t want you traveling alone in that part of town.”
It was hard enough to send her son to the big city… but her daughter?
We ALL have some definition of what “that part of town” is like. But it is different for each of us.
For some of us, “that part of town” is the street where all the shops are boarded up and folks loiter on the corner.
For some of us, “that part of town” is full of expensive houses and we might get pulled over because of the color of our skin.
For some of us, “that part of town” is where we read about shootings and crime.
For some of us, “that part of town” is where we were a parent or relative was spit on or discriminated against.
It is the place where people aren’t like me. Where we are afraid of what might happen to us if we went there. It is the place where we just can’t wrap our minds around what life must be like there.
And the truth is, we all live in somebody else’s “that part of town.” Or “that part of the country.” Or “that part of the world.”
Each of you were handed this morning a slip of paper.
I want to invite you to take it out right now and hold it in your hand.
This morning, I want to invite us to think about those places where we refuse to go. The people we aren’t sure we want to talk to. The situations we would rather keep our distance from. Maybe it is because you have been hurt. Maybe it is because you are afraid.
This is just for you… not for anyone else to see or read… and what I’m going to ask is not going to be easy.
I want to invite you to write on that paper a place that you stay away from. I want you to think about someone you have intentionally not tried to build a relationship with and write their name. I want us all to spend a minute or two in silence as we reflect and are honest with ourselves and with God. What people or places come to your mind…
[ pause ]
That might have been the longest minute some of us have ever spent in worship. I know that wasn’t an easy exercise and I thank you for giving us that time.
Now, fold up that paper and hold it in your hand.
I want you to know that you are not alone.
We all are afraid at times.
We all hesitate to go to certain places.
We all have baggage and prejudice and facts and excuses and our reasons for staying away.
You are not alone.
In fact, Jonah, is just like each of us.
If he was with us this morning, Ninevah would be written on that sheet of paper.
The city of Ninevah was full of horrible, terrible people.
In the book of Nahum the prophet, chapter 2 and 3, we read about their misdeeds:
“Doom, city of bloodshed – all deceit, full of plunder: prey cannot get away. Cracking whip and rumbling wheel, galloping horse and careening chariot! Charging calvary, flashing sword, and glittering spear; countless slain, masses of corpses, endless dead bodies – they stumble over their dead bodies!”
That’s not a pretty picture!
It’s not surprising that Jonah doesn’t want to go.
How would you feel if God asked you to go to this violent, wretched city and tell them all they were about to be destroyed by God’s wrath?
Jonah bought a ticket and headed as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
Well, if you remember the story of Jonah, that didn’t work out so well. He got kicked off the ship, swallowed by a whale, and spit up on the shoreline.
And finally, reluctantly, with fear and trepidation in his heart, he goes.
He goes to “that part” of the world. To “those people.”
He goes to the city and preaches a one sentence sermon:
“Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
He repeats it over and over again as he walks across the city.
Think about “that place” you have written down.
Could you do that?
Not just go to that place you fear, but actually proclaim their destruction?
I think the core of this one sentence sermon was the message that all was lost.
The people were too far gone.
They were just too terrible and God was ready to wipe the slate clean.
And Jonah thought so, too.
He thought the world would be better off without them in it.
What a terrible thing to say.
And yet, if we thought long and hard about the people and the places we have written on our little scraps of paper, I wonder if that phrase maybe had crossed our mind the past.
Anytime we write off someone as hopeless… or treat a community as if it didn’t exist… or think “wow the government would be a whole lot better off if (insert political party here) weren’t around”… we are doing the same thing.
We have done it throughout history… and we have had it done to us.
Whenever the line has been drawn of us/them, good/bad, right/wrong, folks of all sorts of different faith traditions have felt divine calls to pronounce judgment.
The good news is, it isn’t up to us.
Because even when we have declared something hopeless, God isn’t ready to be done yet.
God could have just sent a plague or rained down fire from above upon Ninevah.
But God didn’t.
God called Jonah.
God warned the people.
God gave them a chance.
And even though Jonah didn’t even offer up the possibility of hope in his one sentence sermon of destruction, the people changed their ways.
They turned to God.
The entire kingdom, from the king to the lowest in their midst put on sackcloth and ashes.
As Rev. Bill Cotton pointed out in his reflection this week, some translations say even the cattle repented!
Over this season of Epiphany, we have been exploring the light and the dark. We have been wandering back and forth between the two, and one of the things I hope we are discovering is that the dark isn’t a terrible awful place.
There is possibility in the dark.
There are the seeds of creation and re-creation.
And even a place like Ninevah… Even a place or a person like (hold up your piece of paper)… isn’t lost. It isn’t hopeless.
The question is, are we willing to look for the possibility of change?
Will we open our eyes to see the good in a neighborhood or another person?
Will we lay aside our fears and prejudice and assumptions and go to build relationships?
Will we celebrate when we witness transformations?
Will we ourselves be transformed?
Yes, you, too.
Because God is working on your life also. All those pieces of you that are bent out of shape and bruised and dented. You aren’t hopeless either.
So in the words of Christ, “Now is the time! Here come’s God’s Kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust in the good news!”