More than a big fish tale

January 21, 2018 (The Third Sunday of Epiphany/Ordinary 3)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Jonah 1: 2-5; 15-17 and 3:1-5;10

Psalm 62:1-5

Mark 1:14-20

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine


1: 2“Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” 3But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. 4But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.


15So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. 17 But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.


3:1 “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.”

10 “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” (Jonah 1:2-5;15-17 and 3:1-5, 10, NRSV)


Let us pray: God of the prophets, you call us from evil to serve you. Fulfill in us your love and joy, that the light of your presence may be revealed to all nations, to the glory of Jesus’ name. Amen.

It is fitting that we read the story of Jonah on the day that we baptize an infant, Marilyn Abigail Blum, because it is a story that we think is fit for children. It is a fanciful story that sticks with us. You remember Jonah?


It is a great story.  Jonah was a prophet who tried to run from God.  He was running from God because he had called him to go to Nineveh and prophesy.  Only Jonah, did not want to go to Nineveh.  So, he bought a ticket on a ship to get away.


Once the ship was sailing a mighty storm kicked up.  The wind whipped, the waves crashed, and the storm blew.  It blew so hard that the sailors aboard the ship feared that it was going to break up.  So, the sailors thinking that Jonah had some connection to the storm picked him up and threw him overboard. Oddly enough, once he was in the water the storm stopped, the waves calmed, and they sailed on.


But Jonah thrashed about in the sea.  Then the Lord provided a whale that swallowed Jonah whole. For the next three days Jonah was in the belly of the whale.  While he was in the safety of the whale’s belly he had time to think and he finally decided that he would listen to God and go to Nineveh and that yes, he would tell them what God called him to say.  Then the whale, spit Jonah out onto dry land, on the outskirts of Nineveh.


But don’t think that Jonah was suddenly a changed man, transformed into a faithful prophet who deeply believed in what he was doing.  He still did not want to go to Nineveh.  He hated the Ninevites and thought they deserved the worst kind of treatment.  You see Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and was an enemy to Jonah’s and the Israelites.  They had devastated Jewish cities and killed Jewish people.


Nineveh is now known as Iraq.  How would you feel if God told you to go to Iraq and walk through the city streets telling everyone they were going to be destroyed?   So secretly he must have thought I’ll go declare judgment on those awful sinners and get out of there as fast as I can.  Then I can sit back and enjoy watching those horrible Assyrians get what they have coming to them.


Jonah preaches his five-word sermon, “Forty days and Nineveh shall fall!”  And in true biblical irony, the Ninevites all repent, and Nineveh is saved.  See, it is a great story.


Except most of us believe it is more a fairytale than holy scripture, we find ourselves laughing at the absurdity of it.  A man is swallowed by a whale and he spent three days in its belly before he gives into God. And that is where the Bible does its magic! We are caught, hook, line and sinker!


Yes, the story of Jonah is more metaphor than fact, but we can no more dismiss it than the 10 commandments or John 3:16.  Let me explain.


In many of the stories about human encounters with God there is often irony and humor.  The Bible is full of these examples: Balaam’s Ass, remember the talking donkey, Sarah and Abraham, the ancient couple who name their long-awaited son Isaac, which means laughter, Jesus, the savior of the world is born to an unwed, virgin, who was dirt poor and gave birth to him in a stable in the s#*@hole town of Nazareth.  So, you see today’s story of Jonah is just another in a long line of God’s use of irony and humor to catch us.


Reverend Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Seminary and former church pastor describes Nineveh as a metaphor for what is wrong in the world.  It is the name of whatever it is that makes you afraid in our society, whatever is cruel or mean, and whoever has hurt you.  Nineveh is that place or that person, or that thing, you would like God to rain down vengeance upon.”[1]  In other words, Nineveh is your enemy or what you’re afraid of.


For some of us it is a person, for others it is a place like Pittsburgh or Ann Arbor, or Wyoming (the village of not the state) or North Korea or….and for others it is topics like politics, sex, and money.  Now preaching on politics, sex, and money can be akin to Jonah going to Nineveh hollering repent. I get why Jonah didn’t want to go, but he had to.


So, on a perfectly sweet baptism Sunday, why wouldn’t a preacher stick to the fun story of Jonah? The problem is that in the midst of the fun of the story, there is hard truth.


So, for me I am taking a cue from Jonah and a lot of nudging from God speaking the truth about a topic most of us don’t like to discuss – money.


We have not yet passed a budget for 2018. The Vestry Session will meet on Tuesday evening to do this and this is normal operating procedure for IHC. However, our up-to-date Stewardship response is less than our goal of $700,000.  I have shared with you that math has never been my strong suit.  I took one basic accounting class in college and all I can remember from that course was “first in and first out…”  So, numbers aren’t my thing.  So, I will use round numbers to make this easier for all of us. Our annual operating budget is roughly $900,000, which is a reasonable budget for all we do at IHC.  Our Stewardship goal is $700,000 so there is issue number one, a gap of roughly $200,000 before we even raise a dollar.   Now, we add in what has been pledged which is roughly $650,000.  So, there is issue number two that gap is larger.   We are blessed here at the Indian Hill Church to have a robust endowment roughly $5.5 million and we can use the interest from the endowment to bridge the gap between what our operating budget $900,000 and what we bring in $650,000.  Thank goodness for the endowment and the robust growth in the market in the last few years.   Now, I understand that this is the standard operating procedure in the non-profit world today to use interest from investments to operate.  On the positive side, many mainline churches are operating without an endowment, living in the red, a deficit or going bankrupt.  This is where it becomes my Jonah story and this issue is my Nineveh.   I feel I must raise my concern with you and say that I am uncomfortable living beyond our means, using the interest from the endowment to make our ends meet.  In my limited thinking this is not a long-term sustainable business model.


Now, we have some really smart leaders who guide our church and they are not concerned but I keep finding myself a bit uncomfortable, with this voice waking me up in the middle of the night saying speak the truth.


Please hear me and understand what I am saying, I am not worried, the sky is not failing.  We are a strong church, we are a growing congregation, we have so much to be excited about here at IHC.  We are in a good place and we are a vital church with important ministries taking place, hearts touched, and lives changed. What I believe we have is a giving problem, not a money problem, not a financial struggle but a giving problem. Let me explain.


A recent conversation with a young person, went like this:


It must be great to be a minister, you only work on Sundays.


No, actually, I work other days as well.




Yes, I am a full-time minister. It is my job, my calling.


The young person said, oh that is because you are at the Indian Hill Church, and it has tons of money. They can afford to pay you. You must be rich!


Now, my point has nothing to do with me or what I get paid.


My point from this conversation is the perception that we have tons of money. We are the Indian Hill Church, we are rich!  That is false.  We have money yes, but we can’t meet our budget.   Let that sink in.  Yes, we can pay our bills, but our giving doesn’t meet our budget.  We have roughly 500 members, 250 E’s and 250 P’s and many of those members are very generous and give to support the church. Thank you for giving!  What is surprising is the number of members who give nothing, nada, zip, zero.   Our average pledge is roughly $3200.  Which is a large number but what makes that fake news is the number of no pledges, zero givers and that is something we can fix.   So, I propose that we focus on three things, first thank you for what you give no matter the amount.  Second is seek 100% participation.   If every one of our 500 or so members gave even a dollar, 10 dollars, 100 dollars, you get the point.   The gap would be smaller.  Finally, we can’t be afraid to speak about such things as money, or giving, because if you don’t know the truth then we can’t fix it.


Now that you know — just imagine what our congregation could do and be.  We have so many blessings, we have glorious music, important youth ministry, an incredible Nursery School, a wonderful social media presence, a glorious building and campus to maintain, a full clergy team, and each of you.  So, I am sorry if I ruined a perfectly beautiful baptism Sunday but like Jonah, I had to speak what was on my heart and I pray that we can enjoy the same results that he did and when Nineveh heard his sermon and they were saved.


Let us pray:


[1] The Reverend Dr. M. Craig Barnes, “Running from God,” A sermon on Jonah 1:1-3 at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA on January 23, 2005.