Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, 17th August 2014
Jonah 1 – Nineveh

Jonah and the whale. Actually, it was a big fish, according to our lesson. But I’m not going to get into a zoological discussion about whether the only ‘fish’ big enough to swallow Jonah was a whale, and whether whales are fish. In Psalm 104, ‘there is that Leviathan: whom thou hast made to take his pastime [in the sea]’. Perhaps the big fish was Leviathan.

But the point is that Jonah, the ‘useless prophet’, as Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of St George’s, Baghdad, has called him, Jonah was running away from going to do what the Lord had called him to do, namely, to ‘cry against’ or to ‘denounce’ that ‘great city’, Nineveh. He decided to take a sea cruise in one of the famous ships of Tarshish rather than tackle the ungodly of Nineveh. Unfortunately the ship encountered very heavy weather, and the ship’s crew were making what those of you who worked in EC3 will recognise as a General Average sacrifice: throwing cargo overboard to lighten the ship: an ‘extraordinary sacrifice made for the preservation of the ship and cargo’, as the textbook, Scrutton on Charterparties and Bills of Lading, puts it.

In those days sailors apparently believed that the seaworthiness of the ship might be adversely affected if they were carrying a bad man as a passenger, and so Jonah was closely questioned about his antecedents. The sailors drew lots to discover whom to blame – God would select the one to throw out, they must have thought – and, the lot having fallen on Jonah, they wanted to know all about him.

It made them feel worse that he professed to be a devout Jew on the one hand – ‘I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land’: whereas on the other hand they knew he was running away from doing the will of God – he’d told them as much.

Jonah can’t have been quite as useless a prophet as all that – he bravely offered to be the one chucked overboard, and after the crew had tried manfully to avoid the need to lighten the ship any further, they reluctantly chucked him over the side.

However, Jonah didn’t drown; he was swallowed up alive by the big fish, a.k.a. ‘whale’, probably, and after three days the fish sicked him up on the shore. After that he didn’t mess about any more, but went straight to Nineveh and got on with prophesying the word of the Lord to the people there.

You can read the happy ending, if you keep on reading the Book of Jonah – a quick read, as it only has four chapters. What I want to concentrate on now is Nineveh, where Jonah was preaching.

We are told that Nineveh was a great city. It was situated on the River Tigris, in what was then Assyria, and now is Iraq. The apostle Thomas, ‘Doubting Thomas’, is said in some traditions to have passed through Nineveh on his way to India, 700 years after Jonah. ‘Finding that the people there worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he told them their messiah had come.’ [White, A., 2011, Faith under Fire, Oxford, Monarch Books, p.71] Nineveh and its modern successor city, Mosul, have been Christian since the earliest times. Indeed Mosul, until very recently, is said to have contained the biggest Christian population in the Middle East.

But, as we know, since the end of the Iraq war, for the last decade the Christians there have been under greater and greater attack. At first, Iraqi Christians went for sanctuary to Mosul; then al-Qu’aida started to attack them, and now Islamic State, which used to be known as ISIS, the terrorist group said to be even worse than al-Qu’aida, is attacking the Christians and all the minorities, anyone different from themselves. Just now we hear about the Yazidi, another minority group in the north of Iraq, driven out of their homes into the mountains.

Imagine what it would be like to encounter one of these IS people. What would you say to them? Like Jonah, we could say, ‘We believe in the one true God, maker of heaven and earth’, and we could suggest to them that this was the same god that they believe in. But they would say that we need to believe that Mohamed, not Jesus, was the last true prophet – we could agree that Jesus was a prophet, although for them that’s all He was.

Who is right? Is the answer to this, whatever it is, sufficient reason to kill those who see it differently?

How would we go about establishing what the truth is? Is something true, or right, or good, because God says it is? How would we be sure that we have heard the words of God correctly? Or are things good by their very nature, and God simply recognises that?

If one side says that God has told them to convert the other side, or kill them if they refuse, how best should we deal with this? Is it a military question or an ethical or theological one?

Perhaps one way of looking at this is to say, ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Matt.7:16). What are the fruits of the IS approach, and what are the fruits of the Christian Gospel? Murder and mayhem on the one side, ‘love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith’ on the other. (See Galatians 5:21-22).

Murder and mayhem. There was another massacre yesterday in a village near Mosul called Kawju. At least 80 men of the Yazidi faith were killed by Islamic State fighters. They were offered a choice between agreeing to convert to Islam or death.

In the face of this, of course it becomes more than just a question of debate or persuasion. People need to be protected, and this is necessarily a military question. Even though the use of force does not do anything to remove the cause of the terrorism, even though it does not persuade the terrorists, it is the only thing which will prevent them, in the short run, from harming innocent people.

The West has sent mainly air forces to attack the IS fighters and drive them back. There seems to be evidence that these air attacks have held up the IS sufficiently to allow many of the refugees penned up in the mountains to escape: but still there is no-where permanent for them to go.

So far, I confess that, listening to this sermon, (if you’re not resting your eyes, of course), could be like listening to the news on the radio or watching Newsnight. It’s all happening a long way away and the issues it raises are all pretty rarefied. Could it actually affect us, here in Stoke D’Abernon? Of course we’re horrified by the various reports of atrocities, but what can we do about it?

What Canon Andrew White suggests, in his very inspiring book which I’ve just been reading, ‘Faith under Fire’, (op.cit., pp126f), is a series of ‘R’s’: relationships, risk-taking, relief and reconciliation.

Relationships and risk-taking. If you get to know people, form relationships with them, it’s much more difficult for them to think of you in the abstract as ‘the other’ as aliens, as subhuman, so you can be attacked without getting a bad conscience. And of course it works the other way round. We don’t belittle them.

Taking risks is an Andrew White trademark. He says he was inspired by Lord Coggan, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who told him, ‘Don’t take care, take risks!’

Forming relationships and taking risks. It means that one has to take the risk of contact with the bad people, with people who may well be terrorists. We may not be like Andrew White, on the spot, in the front line, so we may never be likely to meet a terrorist – but we can support people like Andrew, who do. But anyway, it is a challenging thought, that we shouldn’t always play safe. We must use our imagination and not be afraid if the Spirit seems to be leading us in new directions.

Relief is something we already do get involved in here at St Mary’s. Andrew White’s church, St George’s, gives out food to all the congregation – up to 3,000 people come on a Sunday, I read. We too are getting to be good at looking after the inner man or woman where people are in need, through support for our Foodbank. The Foodbank provided food for 57 people a week ago in the hour and a half when it is open, on a Friday, so there’s need here in this area, for sure: but think what the needs of the refugees are in Mosul or in the mountains of Iraq. So there’s a need for us, if we can, also to give to relief agencies, or indeed direct to St George’s in Baghdad or through Christian Aid.

But most important of all, the need is for prayer. Prayers are answered. The testimony which Andrew White gives from Baghdad is that, in the midst of all the oppression, violence and suffering, he sees prayers answered and even miracles of healing. As well as being a priest, he is a medic, who started out as a hospital doctor, an anaesthetist at St Thomas’s in London, so he is properly sceptical about miraculous healing. Even so, he says it has happened, over and over again, when even the well-equipped clinic, which St George’s runs, can do nothing more for a patient. He says, ‘the clinic sends us patients to pray for and, in turn, we send people who have been prayed for to the clinic to be properly tested – so we can indeed verify that their healing is real and complete’ [op.cit. p.118].

Andrew White says his work needs ‘prayer and money’. I wonder whether we should add to that, ‘raising our voices in support’. The Archbishop of Canterbury is supporting the call, by the Bishop of Leeds among others [http://wp.me/pnmhG-1bW], that our government should relax its immigration policy to allow Christian refugees from Iraq to come to Britain. Perhaps we could think about writing to our MP to support this. Maybe we could even prepare to welcome some refugees here, as we did during the civil war in former Yugoslavia. What do you think?

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