Tim Feiertag (He/Him)
Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church
Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish: ‘I called out to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me. From the belly of the underworld I cried out for help; you have heard my voice.
Jonah 2:1-2, Common English Bible Translation
The book of Jonah only makes two appearances in our 3-year lectionary cycle, neither of which is in the Lenten season. But the book feels appropriate to me for Lenten ponderings, especially this year.
I have always appreciated the message of grace that forms the conclusion of the story, a passage we will hear this year on Sept. 20. God reaches into Jonah’s grief, anger, despair, and petty professional dismay to assure Jonah that God’s mercy is so wide that even the cattle of the nation Jonah thinks as his enemy are covered by God’s care and concern. That depth of mercy is a message I return to again and again.
But the story of Jonah was also important in my discernment journey about whether I should quit my career as a social worker and go to seminary to become a pastor. This was around the year 2000, when I knew that if I, as a single gay man, happened to fall in love at any point in the process, I would likely be kicked out of the ELCA’s candidacy system. I didn’t need that grief in my life, so I put off thinking about seminary as long as I could, feeling very much like Jonah fleeing God’s call and finding myself pulled back into the call despite my own fears and objections.
But as I sit here today, in my office in Snohomish County, Washington, the first county in the United States to have a known person infected with COVID-19, during a time when we are rapidly forced to shift to extreme measures of social distancing in order to slow the spread of infections so that our medical system is not pushed beyond its limits, I find myself pondering anew the second chapter of the Jonah story, and his time spent alone in the belly of the giant fish.
The narrator tells us that God sent the fish to save Jonah from drowning by swallowing him from the deep waters. But the belly of a fish sounds no more life-giving to me than the cold waters of the deep. After three days alone inside the fish, Jonah offers a song of praise to God. I wonder what he did during those three days! It seems that is not the point the narrator wishes us to ponder; instead, it is perhaps that Jonah has been quieted long enough to focus on God’s grace, resulting in his response of praise.
As we enter into a new phase in our strange Lenten journey of 2020, where love of neighbor may require a great deal of alone time, may the social restrictions we face grant us clarity on the scope of God’s grace, not just for the gainfully employed or for the physically privileged but for all of God’s good creation, and may we respond in songs of praise.
And since we are not trapped in the belly of a giant fish but are hunkering in place where we live and/or work, may we hear God calling us to new (and/or newly rediscovered) ways of proclaiming that grace even from within our places of social distancing.
God of grace and God of glory, we thank you for your relentless compassion, sitting with us even when we fail to show you our best selves. In these days of rampant fear and isolation, inspire us to use the resources available to us—gifts of quietude, gifts of proclamation, gifts of relationship—to continue your work of ever-expanding love, that all your creation may live out your intentions for us. Amen.