Guest Preacher: Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing
St. Philip Lutheran Church
20 September 2020 + Lectionary 25A
Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing, preaching
Dear friends in Christ grace to you and peace from God and from our savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
So I'm preaching about the prophet Jonah and about the good news for us in this moment of environmental crisis. First question is who are we in the story of Jonah?
As a seminary professor and preacher I’ve typically seen myself in the role of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, called to preach to Nineveh the evil city. And I’ve seen myself as needing to be taught a lesson by that plant that God sends to teach Jonah that God's grace is bigger than he imagines.
But what if instead of seeing ourselves in the role of Jonah the prophet called to preach repentance to the great city that needs to turn. What if we see ourselves as that great city, that great city that needs to turn and repent. What if we see ourselves as Nineveh?
Just to review Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. You can read all about its sins in the prophet Nahum. Ah city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of plunder, who enslaves nations and peoples, your merchants multiply like the stars of the earth.
So Nineveh is bad. Full of brutal violence, economic injustice, slave labor, greed. And now Nineveh this toxic killing system just comes to God’s attention. Nineveh is coming under judgement. But God doesn’t want Nineveh to be destroyed. God wants to save Nineveh. God wants Nineveh to turn and repent.
There is so much good news in the Book of Jonah for our times that can help us today, in our time of multiple crises. The fact is that we too live in a time when God wants the greatest powers on earth to turn. We see imperial systems exposed, laid bare today, by multiple crises. God wants us to turn, to change course. That's the Biblical word shuv in the Hebrew or in Greek metanoia, to turn around so that we and our beloved world will not be destroyed.
We face multiple crises today that are killing people. You know them: interconnected systems of violence, structures of violence that are destroying lives unequally, especially Black and Brown people’s lives. The Coronavirus pandemic, the sin of white supremacy, racial injustice and violence, the sin of economic injustice, economic inequality causing suﬀering. And at the same time the sin of environmental injustice.
In slow moving, looming climate crisis manifested in droughts, hurricanes, and floods in Puerto Rico, Iowa, in India. Heat waves and wildfires in California— last year in Australia— terrible fires. This is the crisis that carries the most perilous, long term consequences for hundreds of millions of refugees around the world. People fleeing crop loss in their homelands, crossing borders to find food because their land can no longer support farms anymore.
Like the people in the Bible Naomi and Ruth, Jesus crossed borders for safety from violence. This is the global climate change crisis, overheating our planet, the result of burning of fossil fuels. The world is ill. We are ill. We need turning, like the song The Canticle of the Turning. The world is about to turn and we pray that it will turn in time to be saved.
I’ve met Central American farmers who are no longer able to raise their crops because the rains don’t come when they should anymore. I’ve met Tanzanian Lutherans from mountain villages who never had malaria and mosquitoes before global warming and now they're losing children to malaria death. I’ve met Lutheran families from Alaskan villages whose houses are falling into the ocean because of melting permafrost and loss of sea ice. And this is the great injustice of climate change. People in communities who have done nothing to cause the problems are the ones who are being hardest hit with the greatest suﬀering. That is not fair.
Jonah finally got the message. He was turned back in the correct direction. Jonah reluctantly then went to Nineveh preaching in just 40 days this great City will be destroyed. But prophecy doesn't mean prediction— that’s the mistake Jonah made— prophecy means warning. It’s a wake up call, there is still time to repent and turn. In just 40 days he said. In just 10 years our best scientists are saying that's the intergovernmental panel on climate change. And I believe the scientists. I believe their wake-up call. I hope you believe them too.
So we face a kairos moment, that’s the biblical word that Greek Orthodox patriarch Archbishop Bartholomew uses to describe our moment in time. So he founded the season of creation, that’s what we’re observing now, the season of creation, joining with all our churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Council of Churches, Roman Catholic churches, Pope Francis, Lutherans Restoring Creation, your congregation, all of us.
Kairos is a Biblical word that means “an urgent moment in time” that is now. Time to turn is now. If we want to hope to keep global temperature rise under a 3.6 degree increase, a safe level, avert disastrous consequences, to protect the oceans, to protect these beautiful forests that are the lungs our planet. The time is now to clean up our air and water so our children and grandchildren inherit a livable planet.
We must follow the path that our best policy leaders say is possible, we must turn away from burning fossil fuels, electrify everything, make a just transition to clean renewable energy, protect the most vulnerable communities, provide for those who lose their livelihood as a result. We’ve got to flatten the curve of carbon emissions urgent and we can do it.
The Book of Jonah has so much good news for us in this moment of crisis.
That’s why I'm preaching on Jonah.
Three things: the first good news, God loves Nineveh, this hated foreign city, God loves it. God's heart is moved to compassion by the more than 120 thousand people who live there plus the many animals. This is good news for us. God does not want Nineveh to be destroyed. God wants people there to listen, to change, to avert the catastrophe. God is gracious. God loves Nineveh and us and the whole creation passionately.
Second good news and perhaps the most amazing: change happens. Much to Jonah’s amazement, even chagrin, Nineveh does repent, they turn, a great turning, they turn around, they put on sackcloth and ashes they repent, even the animals put on sackcloth and ashes and I don’t know if you’ve ever put clothes on animals but that’s pretty funny. The model of Nineveh as a huge imperial city turning away from its path of violence and injustice, and its unsustainable path to a diﬀerent path in just 40 days, this can serve as an inspiration to us as a model of how our economies can change. And if the Coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything good, it's that we have the ability to make drastic changes really fast. That’s hopeful. We can do it. Nineveh, the giant ship of state, all the people, all the animals, they changed their course they turned around, they changed policy really fast.
That’s what repentance means. How do they do it? How did change happen? Well it was a people’s movement like what Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” The change began with people who listened to God, took to the streets, organizing good trouble to pressure their leaders to change. In response then to grassroots pressure, the king listened, he repented, he got on board, he embarked on a fast-track campaign to change the empire away from injustice. All shall turn away from their evil way and from violence, he said, perhaps we are in time to avert the disaster. He made the case so we won’t be destroyed. He even enlisted the animals to join the turning and so can we. Everyone participates.
The third piece of good news here is that that disaster was averted. This is what makes Jonah mad in that hilarious pouting scene with the bush. I knew you were a God slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing. What an amazing profession of faith. I knew you were a God of steadfast love.
Time is short. It was only 40 Days for Nineveh, it’s 10 years or so for us but the good news we can learn from Jonah is that there is still time to avert disaster. Now to be sure: global warming, Coronavirus, these are not punishments from God and we need to say that. That's a big diﬀerence from us and the Jonah story. God doesn't send sicknesses or catastrophes as punishment. That would be terrible theology. But global warming does follow a logic of consequences, laws of physics and chemistry. We live on this beautiful, finely calibrated planet with the perfect amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Most of our carbon isn’t in the atmosphere, in fact, it is safely sequestered underground, under our feet in the rocks layers. I used to be a geology major so I love this geology. Most of the carbon is underground.
And in this wonderfully calibrated system certain actions cause other actions so you can't keep digging up the fossil carbon that’s sequester underground and burning it into the air without terrible consequences, without burning up the planet. For now, oceans are absorbing most of the carbon but that too has consequences and we have to stop.
The good news is that God has made this amazing planet with powers for healing healing and resilience. Scientist tell us there still time to change, that nature can help us heal. We can draw down carbon. This is one of my favorite books, the drawdown project: 100 Ways To draw down carbon below these levels. We’re at now a 440 parts per million and increasing. All of us can be a part of the turning. All of us can be a part of the drawdown, supporting a transition to renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, battery storage technology, advocating for putting a real price on carbon that reflects its externalities, it’s true cost. Ee can pay farmers to sequester carbon in the soil and forests as carbon storers, we can build resilient communities, green teams in our congregations and synod, we can share a vision of turning, what abundant life for all creation looks like, Jesus’ vision for abundant life.
That’s what we’re working on with Lutherans Restoring Creation with the congregational green team program, the green shepherd’s program, that’s what we’re working on with the ELCA sustainability table, with advocacy— how to love God’s world, how to trouble the waters with good trouble, for justice for God’s people and for all creation.
The prophet Jonah can serve as a parable for us, for our church, for all of us. Nineveh, that huge world trading empire that God did not give up on, can be an inspiration for us today. For system change, for urgent repentance, for turning our economy away from injustice and injustice. This is a kairos moment for us in these next crucial years and we can do it.
So there is unbelievable good news for Nineveh in this story, good news that we can all take to heart. Surely we can do as well as Nineveh. We can do better. The prophet Jonah is still speaking today, God still loves us so much that God pleads with us to turn. It’s not too late. God is a god of generosity, full of compassion. God is still teaching us lessons through the plants, the bushes, the animals, the ecosystems, through nature that can heal us. Turn us, O God of great compassion. Turn us. Turn us to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.