Scripture: Jonah, chapter 3
As I have mentioned in the past, I grew up in an Appalachian setting; a setting where cities were held suspect. I have a friend still living on the outskirts of Johnstown and when she learned that Britt and I would be relocating to the Chicago area for Britt’s PhD work, the first words out of her mouth were, “I’m so sorry.”
My upbringing did, in fact, enculturate me to fear the city. For many of us here in the Midwest, farm living is wholesome living; whereas cities may conjure up images of dirtiness, decadence, despair, or diversity that puzzles or troubles us – fast living and fast traffic… except during rush hour when it just comes to a dead stop.
Even so, according to our bible, “the city constitutes a central context for faith and practice.”[i] Without a doubt, the best known Old Testament scripture is Psalm 23. Yet we often forget, that pastoral psalm concludes in an urban setting as the psalmist writes, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”[ii] The “house of the Lord,” my friends, was the Temple and the Temple was located in Jerusalem, the holy city. Jerusalem must have been a large city. After all, King Solomon, under whose reign the Temple was built, used the forced labor of his subjects. It would have been a large construction crew and in a day and time when commuting would not have been a viable option.
Now, it is true that life began in a garden. But, it’s going to end in a city. I’ll say more about that later. Anyway, in Genesis, chapter two, Eden is portrayed as a veritable paradise, God’s gift to humanity. It is also true that cities like Sodom and Gomorrah support a negative urban stereotype of sexual deviance and a complete disregard for hospitality and simple human decency. Finally, one cannot argue the fact that Jesus was put to death in a city. Our Lord grieved as he said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”[iii] And yet, that very same city is the place of Jesus’ resurrection and, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus gives indisputable instructions to his disciples that Jerusalem is the place where they are to remain until the coming of Pentecost. “Stay here in the city,” Jesus tells them, “until you have been clothed with power from on high.”[iv] One can only imagine how much more slowly the Jesus movement would have spread without the benefit of so many people and cultures intermingling in the thriving metropolis of Jerusalem. It was the perfect launching pad for a movement whose evangelists are specifically instructed to witness to all nations. We’re told by Luke that, on that Pentecost day, “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.”[v] The apostle Paul was an urbanite through and through. His missionary strategy involved the planting of churches in major cities like Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and Thessalonica. And Paul’s ultimate geographical goal is the largest city of the first century: Rome, boasting up to a million people.
This Sunday marks my third week preaching from the Old Testament book of Jonah. The first two chapters focus, primarily, on the prophet himself. The opening verses of the book are God’s command to Jonah to go to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh. But Jonah’s resistance to the prophetic call means that two full chapters of the book have little to do with Nineveh and much to do with Jonah, himself. If nothing else, this little book makes clear that anyone who might hope to outwit, outlast or outplay God had better think again. God’s passionate concern for the city and its residents will not be thwarted by human disobedience. It will, ultimately, lead to their restoration… a possibility Jonah does not wish to entertain or be party to.
The Rev. David Albert Farmer recounts his experience when a large denomination planned its annual convention in New Orleans, the city where he lived and pastored. They decided to descend upon the city a couple of days early in order to use their evangelistic influence to save the souls of New Orleans’ wicked residents. Farmer was on Bourbon Street one evening when he was approached by a young man pushing an evangelistic tract into his face. He writes:
I thought at first he wanted me to smell something. When I figured out what was going on, I took the tract out of his hand and asked, “What is this?”
“It’s a publication about God.”
“Oh, I see. What will it tell me about God?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You haven’t read it?”
“I’m sure it must tell me something about God’s love, don’t you think?”
“I doubt it,” he explained. “We want to keep you people from going to hell so it probably tells you about burning for eternity and stuff.”
“Let me be clear on this,” Rev. Farmer queried. “You care about my eternal destiny, and you don’t even know my name or what the tract says?”
“Look, mister, I have to pass all these out before I can meet my friends for Cajun food. You’d better get saved, or you’re going to hell; that’s all.”
“Well, thanks for your concern,” Famer said. “I think I may preach about how to come to God this coming Sunday morning. Have a fun time in the French Quarter this evening.”[vi]
As I mentioned two weeks ago, Jonah’s disdain for this city is understandable. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians had swooped in upon the northern tribes of Israel in 721 BCE and destroyed them. So effective were the Assyrians that those ten tribes were considered forever lost. What an incredible grief and what an understandable anger and outrage Jonah carried.
And yet, God cared about the city of Nineveh and the people that inhabited it and preferred their deliverance over their destruction. God had a plan to redeem Nineveh. God has a heart for the city because it does, in fact, constitute a central context for faith and practice.
In chapter 3 of Jonah, the city of Nineveh finally receives the attention it deserves. And God’s passion for the city is a fitting message for our congregation. We were the first church in the city of Lafayette… in Tippecanoe County, for that matter. And, in the beginning, downtown was all there was. And then, as we all know the story, suburbs sprung up and people spread out and, as a congregation, we were faced with the choice of going or staying. And we chose to stay.
In 1975, Lyle Schaller, the father of modern church renewal, the teacher of folks like our consultant, Dan Bonner at the Center for Urban Congregational Renewal… In 1975, Schaller came here and the cover of the report he prepared for us based on our input proclaimed, “The Downtown Church That Did Not Relocate.”
But what are we doing here? Why are we here?
Although it is an easy detail to overlook, one might notice that Jonah’s message to the Ninevites does not include any stereotypical prophetic lead-in, such as: “Thus says the Lord” or “Hear the Word of the Lord.” Our author clearly states in Jonah 3:3 that “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” But the content of Jonah’s message to the people of that city sounds a little more like the young man in Rev. Farmer’s story. Note the similarity: “You’d better get saved or you’re going to hell;” “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” I guess neither evangelist saw the need to toss in any of that “steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” stuff.[vii] Forget that. Just give ‘em hell. That was the missionary strategy of Jonah and the young man in New Orleans.
I mean Jonah doesn’t even bother to cover the whole city. He gets about a 1/3 of the way in and blurts out his gloom and doom and he is done. But, lo and behold; despite Jonah’s worst efforts, the people of Nineveh put their trust in the message they hear. From the greatest of them to the least of them, they humble themselves. Their king admonishes them to turn from evil and violence. They are a remarkably responsive audience.
Now perhaps the book of Jonah sugar coats what it’s like to do ministry in a downtown setting. It is not generally so simple. Downtowns are notoriously diverse; hard to define in all their complexity. Perhaps that is why so many head to the suburbs where things tend to be a little more similar and uniform. But that is not where we are, my friends. We are downtown. We are “the downtown church that did not relocate.” You know, some of our very best theology is hymns, like this one: “The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”[viii] Now please, don’t misunderstand me. I am thankful to God for all of you who are here this morning. I am grateful that most of you passed, no doubt, several churches on your drive to Trinity. I am thankful for your dedication and commitment to this place. And yet, the Church is not a building – despite ours being an extraordinarily beautiful sanctuary – the Church is not a building, but a people. God loves this city, this downtown, and its people and this downtown is where we are. But this downtown community, if we examine our membership rolls, is not who we are. So, I don’t think we can or should try to escape God’s Word to us to “Go” to our city, to this downtown neighborhood. Friends, my message today is about God’s love for the city and it’s an important message for us because we have identified ourselves as “the downtown church that did not relocate.” That was neither a decision nor an identity someone else imposed on us; it was our choice, our self-identification.
Now I wish I could give you a very simple, fool-proof system for how we can effectively connect with our neighborhood. But I can’t. It will be a process, a lengthy process; a series of experiments, trial and error. We won’t be able to just hand people fliers or brochures. We’ll have to get their name and get to know them and listen to them.
It will take time. But friends, it is an exciting time to be in this downtown because it is growing and developing in ways that bear all kinds of potential and possibilities. Right here, right now, is a great time and place to be.
But I’m not gonna leave you with nothing this morning, don’t worry. I can give you three ways, relatively easy ways, to connect better to this community, to get to know folks, and to share the good news of God’s love. One, join me for lunch in Centennial Park. A member and I had lunch there last Wednesday. It was great; a little muggy and drizzly, but you’ll find that everywhere right now. We met and talked with a group of ladies who drive school buses and use the park as their place to visit while the kids are at the Y. Two, attend the Tuesday evening Dulcimer concerts in the park. The music’s beautiful and you can mingle with our neighbors. Three, walk around the neighborhood and introduce yourself to folks. Find out how long they’ve lived here, what they like about the neighborhood, and what they’d like to see change.
Now, I have to confess to you: Some of those online preaching websites say I need to end every sermon with some personal application to the individual lives of my congregation. But folks, here’s the truth: the good news doesn’t call us to be individuals, islands unto ourselves; it calls us to be a community, a faith family. That’s why our vision statement is “Growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.”
Oh, I made you a promise that I’d say something about how, or where, life will end… or at least how our Holy Scriptures say it will all end. When God has finally and fully defeated all sin and evil, a new heaven and earth are established and what comes down from those heavens? A city, the New Jerusalem, fully and entirely permeated by the presence of Jesus. The city, my friends, constitutes a central context our for faith and practice.”[ix] God loves the city… and the people of God are called to love it too.
[i] Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology. January, 2000: “The City.” P. 4.
[ii] Psalm 23:6
[iii] Matthew 23:37
[iv] Luke 24:49b
[v] Acts 2:5
[vi] Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology. January, 200. P. 63-64
[vii] Lamentations 3:22.
[viii] We Are the Church, hymn #558 from “The United Methodist Hymnal.” Words and music by Avery and Marsh, 1972, Hope Publishing Co.
[ix] Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology. January, 2000: “The City.” P. 4.
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