(Note: I am indebted to Ken Henry, pastor, Westminster, Presbyterian in Charlottesville, for his insights on the book of Jonah).
For many years I was in charge of planning and participating in church sponsored mission trips. Usually our one mission trip was to Marlinton, West Virginia, although eventually we added other mission trips to our summer offerings--to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and one year to Nogales, Mexico. So, Marlinton, West Virginia. It was a super-depressed area. In Marlinton we worked with Habitat for Humanity. We never worked at building new homes in Marlinton, though. That was because the Habitat there didn’t have enough money for NEW homes—we worked at renovating old homes, many of them, old trailer homes. We worked in many a trailer park over the years, actually. Since many of the volunteers were high school and college age, we went on our trips when the youth were out of school, during the summer—and it was always, always hot.
Just to give you an idea of what we engaged in: One year, one of our jobs was adding insulation to the underneath side of some trailers. We took turns shimmying under trailers, on our backs, in the dirt, wearing long pants, long-sleeved shirts, breathing masks and goggles—in other words, as covered up as we could possibly be--because you know you want to protect yourself from the fiber glass and also bugs and snakes. We’re talking suffocatingly hot. We came out from under those trailers, covered in sweat, grimy beyond belief. Patience can dissipate quickly in work situations like that.
What kept us from being at each other’s throats in those conditions? Faith. This was a church mission trip, so every morning and every evening, we prayed for God’s help. Sometimes if our group was especially cranky, we prayed in the middle of the day. But that’s not all that kept us going. Good vibes kept us going. There’s the feeling you get from doing something good for someone else. The people living in those trailers, most of them, anyway, had physical limitations and handicaps. We could see how much they needed our help. And they were extremely appreciative. They even helped as they were able. So good vibes kept us from losing our cool.
Finally, humor kept us going. A lot of camaraderie among mission trip volunteers. We told jokes—did crazy stuff—One year Pepé le Pue made a midnight run in the campground. We know that it was Pepé because he left messages for us, in the bathrooms, in the kitchen. And, Pepé even moved one of the counselor’s cars—yep, Pepé le Pue picked up that car and moved it to the other side of the campground! Another year, in Chambersburg, we worked on roofs. If you have ever worked on a roof, you know that if you put a tool down, say a hammer, it just might slide off—and it could seriously hurt somebody down below. So we learned early on, that if that happens, if your stuff starts to slide, you shout out—“Hammer,” or “tool belt,” to give people down below adequate warning. When we got punchy, you know how that is, we would make up silly things to shout out. “Cow.” “Toaster oven” Ok, maybe not so funny now, but we had a lot of fun with that then.
Occasionally, though, we would have someone among us who did not join in our camaraderie—who was, what I will generously call a contrarian. This was someone who marched to a different drummer, so to speak. Someone who, metaphorically, anyway, sang off key. You know people like that? A neighbor? A family member—the person sitting next to you?
One of those contrarians in Marlinton one year, was a young woman named Carolyn. Carolyn did NOT join in the fun. And she did NOT join in the work either, unless pressured—usually by me. She asked a lot of questions that tore at my soul--“Why do we have to go to the work site so early? Why can’t we have pancakes for breakfast instead of eggs? Why do I have to go to the evening prayer service?” It was like she was a two-year-old in a 15-year-old body.
At the work site, she was sometimes the self-appointed project director—even though she had no experience and few skills. She would sit at the sidelines, while the rest of us were engaged in some backbreaking task—and she would tell us what we were doing wrong. One time, for instance, we were building steps for a trailer—the old ones had rotted out. Instead of lending a hand, she sat on a tree stump, taking a long “rest break,” and offering us her contrarian views on our work. Daggone it, though, in that one case she was right. We had built the steps upside down, if you get my drift. Her one time being right, was maybe even more infuriating than when she was wrong. That taught me a lesson: It’s difficult to appreciate a contrarian, even when she’s right.
Jonah was like that. Jonah was like Carolyn and like a 2-year-old in an adult body. And like Carolyn, difficult to appreciatie. Every time God wants Jonah to say, Yes, he says no. Every time God wants Jonah to say no he says yes. Did you get that from our reading? But it’s just not God that Jonah irritates, Jonah sleeps down below, while the rest of the crew tries to save the ship! He sleeps? Don’t you think those sailors must have been cursing Jonah as they threw their precious cargo overboard? “Why isn’t he helping us?” In Nineveh, while all the Ninevites are in a state of repentance, sitting on ashes, wearing sackcloth, Jonah observes from the sidelines. “They are the ones that need to repent—not me.” And then of course, Jonah questions God for showing the Ninevites mercy! What a pain!
Yet, Jonah was chosen by God for special purpose. Seems like God often chooses contrarians for God’s purposes. For instance, Desmond Tutu. You know Desmond Tutu. He is a South African Anglican cleric who was part of the Anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He was the first black man to hold that position. For his work he was awarded the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.
My daughter Joy graduated from William and Mary in 2006. The family had been in a state of high busy-ness in the lead up to that special day—; moving into hotel rooms for the night, packing up all the stuff in her apartment; visiting open houses on campus, meeting some of Joy’s friends and their families, and all the rest. We had no idea who the graduation speaker would be that day, nor did we care. I mean, commencement exercises are supposed to be boring, right?
It came as a great surprise, then, when we finally sat down in that great stadium, our eyelids heavy, ready for a nap to tell you the truth, and we opened our programs. The commencement speaker? Desmond Tutu! Desmond Tutu? Who gets Desmond Tutu to travel 10,000 miles to speak at a US graduation? That’s like having Jesus on the program—just about.
In fact, God was the topic of Desmond Tutu’s address just as surely as it would have been if Jesus had been the commencement speaker. However, William and Mary is a state school. Commencement exercises at state schools are not supposed to be religious—that’s what Baccalaureates are for. Didn’t Desmond Tutu know that? Or did he know that and just decide to not honor that? What do YOU think?
Yes, Desmond Tutu’s remarks were religious. He talked about God’s agenda for humanity. This week I found his speech on-line—Which is proof that you can find just about everything online. His words weren’t just religious though, they were political. He interpreted 2006 US politics through the lens of a faithful disciple and prophet. He condemned our war in Iraq—saying that war is against the very nature of God. He condemned those who fail to acknowledge gays and lesbians as human beings and children of God. He held up gender equality as part of God’s holy agenda. And Desmond Tutu appealed to young people, those soon-to-be college graduates--he appealed to them to join in being co-creators with God in establishing a better world for us all-a world without war, without prejudice.
After he finished, he was roundly applauded in a standing ovation as you would expect he would be—However, not by everyone. After he spoke, a few types—I’m guessing parents of students, they were too old to be students—stood up and rebutted Desmond Tutu. That was probably to be expected, too—after all, Desmond Tutu’s message was not smooth and easy like commencement addresses are supposed to be. And again, his words had a definite religious slant. Again, prophets are contrarians.
God help us, though, in difficult times like this, like 2018. We definitely need contrarians. It may be our only hope for a safer, more just world.
On this Sunday a couple of weeks after Martin Luther King day, we remember that Martin Luther King was also a contrarian. He used a different term to describe that particular personality trait, though: Mal-adjusted. In a speech he gave on December 18th, 1963 at Western Michigan University, he claimed that all of us need to be maladjusted when it comes to the wrongs in our society, wrongs that we fail to act on, or just plain ignore because, you know, it’s easier to just get along. Economic injustice—is one—the great disparity in our country—right here in Scottsville--between rich and poor; The insanity of our non-sensical gun laws in our country is another—Do you know that OUR Virginia General assembly couldn’t even see clear to outlaw bump stocks--the continuing racism in our country, again in Virginia, and in Scottsville, the list goes on. We who are contrarians speak up, DO something, and like Jonah, and like Desmond Tutu, like Martin, we refuse to be silenced.
I will end this sermon with Martin Luther’s words—which are as relevant today as when he preached them more than half a century ago:
But I say to you, my friends, as I move to my conclusion, there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all [people] of good‐will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence…
In other words, I’m about convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment‐‐men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet--Jonah.