A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 21 August 2016, by Canon Robert Titley, Precentor.
Picture: Guy was in church for this service and his t-shirt was perfectly chosen for the sermon.
August is a teasing month. It begins in dreamy high summer and ends with morning chills that hint at a turning of the seasons. A good time take stock, which is just what Jonah is about to do at the end of the first reading. Jonah, though - hero, antihero, likeable villain of the book in the Bible that bears his name - does it in crisis, not at leisure.
The story of Jonah has passed into our cultural bloodstream. Perhaps you sang Jonah Man Jazz at school, one of only three biblical stories - with Joseph and the birth of Jesus - to become a school play staple. You may have loved the story, told from a bright picture book at bedtime. But when you grow up you put away childish things. And if, as many assume, being Christian means reading every Bible story (Jonah included) as a factual report, then the whole faith of Jesus can get put away, along with Father Christmas and childhood dreams of being a ballet dancer or a spy.
If I had to stick a label on this story, to say 'read it this way', I’d call Jonah a folktale. It draws on wider themes from its world: a museum in Italy has a Greek bowl of the eighth century BC, about Jonah’s vintage, showing a shipwreck (like the one Poseidon inflicts on Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey) and a giant fish swallowing a man: a universal sign of the terrors the sea held for those ancient mariners. Jonah feels like a more playful example of these stories, weaving event and legend into a tale that beguiles, amuses and moves you.
It has comedy, largely situational, as when, in our reading, he hears the voice of God telling him to go and preach to Nineveh - and sails away to Tarshish. This would have brought smiles from an ancient audience, as it is in the exact opposite direction; as if the Dean asked two colleagues to represent the Cathedral at a service at St Paul’s, and you overheard them discussing trains to Exeter. It has drama, too. As shipwreck looms, Jonah owns up, ‘This storm is because of me,’ and tells the crew to throw him overboard. The waters of death swirl around Jonah and then comes the famous fish (we call it a whale) to swallow him up. Now comes pathos, as Jonah begins taking intestinal stock. He thinks about all he was about to lose - never to see the holy temple in Jerusalem again - cries out in thanks and promises to do something with this second chance.
Where in contemporary culture can we find this mix of fact and fantasy, humour and pathos? The closest parallel I can find is the cartoon animation. (Indeed, the Jonah story supplies an important plot link in that undersea classic, Finding Nemo.) There, someone can be swallowed by a whale and survive to experience a dozen other impossible things, yet at the end you say: ‘Oh, that’s so true.’ Let me illustrate with reference to Homer, not the Greek epic poet but the hero, antihero and likeable villain of Matt Groening’s creation The Simpsons. Homer Simpson is the antithesis of the paragons of discipline and single-mindedness we are watching in the Olympics. He drinks too much, eats too much, takes no exercise, generally lacks moral fibre. And in one episode he, like Jonah, has a brush with fish and death.
The Simpson family persuade Homer to break the habit of years, forego his Friday night pork chops and try something new. They go to a sushi restaurant. Homer tries a piece of raw fish, very unwillingly, discovers he likes it, and chomps his way through the whole menu. He even insists on fugu, blowfish, a fish with a poison gland which, if wrongly sliced, can be fatal. Homer has just finished when the chef runs out, tells him that his portion may have been improperly prepared, and urges him to go to hospital (the directions to which are helpfully printed on the back of the menu).
There Homer hears that he has just twenty-four hours to live. He too takes stock. He makes a list of Things To Do: 1. Make List (crossed off); 2. Plant A Tree; then, Have Heart To Heart With Son; Listen to Daughter Play Saxophone; Make Peace with Dad, Have Last Meal With My Beloved Family; and so on.
He finally falls asleep listening to the Bible on his Walkman (it’s an old episode). Homer awakes next morning, realises he has survived, and declares: ‘From this day forward I vow to live life to its fullest.’ As the credits roll we see him, back on the sofa watching TV, munching an acutely unhealthy snack.
A list like that reveals what you are most grateful for, and what you want your life to add up to at the end.
The list can wait until you have a brush with death, or some other crisis, or you can make it now. Take stock when you don't absolutely have to, and then you’ll be ready when you do.
Quieter times of the year - if this is one for you - bring opportunities for this. So do the milestones of life. A friend's wedding prompts the question: what of love and friendship and fidelity in my life? A retirement party makes you ask: what do I want to look back on when it's my turn to say good-bye? It will happen to me soon when I see a friend instituted as a new parish priest: I’ll hear the familiar promises, to be constant in prayer and diligent in caring for God's people, and I’ll ask myself how I have kept those promises since I made them here, nine months ago.
All this makes sense for atheist and believer alike, but I believe that when those questions bubble up in the mind, it is not just me talking usefully to myself, but me, like Jonah, hearing the voice of God: prompting me, challenging, judging, and inviting me.
When the people in the gospel reading ask Jesus for a sign, he offers them what he calls ‘the sign of Jonah’, which is himself, for he too will be swallowed up - by death - for three days. That means they need to take stock, because they are in the presence of something greater than Jonah.
And so are we here, with Jesus as our host, inviting us to our own stocktaking: to say thank you for the past seven days, to say sorry for whatever has gone wrong, and to be sent out, fed and fortified by the assurance of God's forgiveness and friendship.
What then? Then the choice is between Jonah and Homer, the man in the fish and the man on the sofa. One finds that the crisis wears off, as crises tend to, after a while (apart from the last one). The other changes course, as many have done, not in folktale but in real life, when they have heard God call them. People like Cardinal Newman, who wrote these words:
God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me that he has not committed to any other. I have my mission. Somehow I am necessary for his purposes: as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his. I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for nothing. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place. Deign to fulfil your high purposes in me. I am here to serve you, to be yours, to be your instrument.