The biggest mass lynching in the history of America began with a murder in 1890. David Hennessy, the police chief of New Orleans, was assassinated outside his home as he returned from a meeting. Soon the city and country were transfixed by the gripping trial that followed, with headlines not only in local news but the NY Times as well What nobody expected was that all of those who stood accused in the death of Police Chief Hennessy would receive a verdict of not guilty.
A mob of incensed and outraged citizens gathered outside the prison, forced open the doors, and, in a fit of anger, lynched all six men accused of murder, along with five of other prisoners of the same ethnic background. Five more prisoners were severely wounded and died soon afterwards.
News stories after the incident applauded the actions mob, saying that with justice denied, they had no choice. Teddy Roosevelt, soon to become President of the US, commented that the lynchings were “a rather good thing.” The NY Times put into words what everyone was thinking: “Chief Hennessy avenged…Italian murderers shot down.”
It is easy to forget that, not all that long ago, Americans had a serious problem with Italians. The massive influx of immigrants from Italy, immigrants who happened to speak another language, and worship in a different way, threatened the Anglo-Protestants who called America home. Anxiety about immigration mixed with nativism to produce a toxic environment in which Italians found themselves subject to claims that they were subhuman, un-American, and unwelcome. They were prohibited from building Catholic churches, rejected for jobs, and treated with mistrust.
These days, it is easy to forget that this is a part of our history. That we were capable of this. But it is, and we were. Which perhaps can give us some perspective as we read the story of Jonah this morning.
Jonah, you see, is in the midst of a crisis. This book of the Bible was written not long after the Babylonian Exile. And for those of you who skipped ancient geography, the city of Ninevah, the city to which Jonah is called to preach, is the capital of Babylon. In other words—they are the enemy. But unlike the story of Italian immigration, in which honest people sought to make a life in a new land, in this story, the Babylonians were the aggressors.
The histories and the prophets describe the period of Babylonian conquest as a time of oppression and violence in Israel. When the Babylonians first arrived, the Israelites locked themselves up in the walled city of Jerusalem seeking safety, only to find themselves besieged within their own walls. Thousands of innocents died, and thousands more did unspeakable things to survive. When Babylon finally took the city, they carried into exile a broken people who despaired that God had abandoned them
How difficult, then, it must have been to hear the story of God’s redemption of their enemies. We can only imagine how the people of Israel must have understood Jonah’s desire to have nothing to do with God’s plan. For no sooner does God call Jonah than Jonah jumps on a ship headed in the opposite direction. Only by God’s divine intervention—a violent sea storm, three days in the belly of a fish—does Jonah find himself facing the very thing he fears most.
By the time we get to our scripture reading this morning, Jonah has ignored God, run away, attempted suicide, been swallowed by a fish, and finally has been all but dragged by God to Ninevah, where our reading tells us he enacted the bare minimum of God’s calling: he walks far enough into the city to say he did it, says 5 words, and runs back out to wait and watch for God to destroy his enemy once and for all.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, these enemies hear Jonah’s bare minimum and raise him repentance. It turns out that the people of Ninevah are ready to change, which is what repent, or in Hebrew, schuv, means. Even though Jonah fails to mention God, the people understand that it is God that they need, and the whole city, 60 miles worth of it, turns from their evil ways and towards the God who would judge them. And it turns out God is ready to change, too. Instead of judgment, God offers mercy to the enemy. Forgiveness for the cattle in sackcloth and ashes.
Let’s just say that this is NOT what Jonah had in mind. Jonah knows what the Ninevites deserve, and it looks nothing like compassion. He simple cannot understand a God who is willing to let the past be buried and done with. To him, this doesn’t feel like progress at all. This kind of change is incomprehensible.
The God who forgives Ninevites continues to surprise us. In our Gospel this morning, the unexpected Messiah Jesus arrives at the Sea of Galilee and gathers the least likely and most unqualified for his journey of discipleship. He calls out to uneducated fishermen who have probably never set foot far beyond the waters and bids them follow him into a life that will take them away from what is familiar and will put them constantly on the move. They will have no home but God. Stay with me, he says, and I will help you become fishers of people. They don’t know just how difficult that will be just yet. They didn’t know how much they would lose, how much they would change. But they trust Jesus enough to stop fishing and start following. Because they also trust that what they will more than make up for it.
Stay with me. There’s the rub. The church as an institution is currently experiencing what could charitably be called cultural decline over the last century or so. And it is only in my own lifetime has the church begun to acknowledge that the world has changed. Only recently that we have begun to wonder, “What is next?” Not because we want to, but because we cannot afford not to. Then again, for many of us, we just want things the way they were. We keep looking back at our comfortable past, back to the days of full Sunday Schools and full community participation and we wonder why we can’t just stay there.
But the answer couldn’t be more obvious: we can’t go back, because God isn’t back there anymore. God is on the move, and Jesus is calling us to follow him. Forward. To new places. God wants us to fish for people, which means we have to go to where the fish are.
Anyone who has gone fishing knows that sometimes you have to pick up your gear and move to a new place. Sometimes old fishing holes get tired. Or overfished. Or the environment changes. We can’t keep fishing in an empty pond and expect success.
I’ve read research recently showing that migratory animals are changing their patterns with climate change—fish are going further north and south, birds are stopping in new places, because they want to survive. They have to change, to adapt to a world that will not stay the same. Can we afford to ignore what even the birds and the fish have noticed? That the world is changing around us?
Stay with me, says Christ. Just stay with me.