May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
It’s a great pleasure to join you in worship this evening and to have the opportunity to speak to you. Just to introduce myself very quickly, I’m a recently ordained deacon and I am the assistant curate at St Bride’s in Fleet St. I also work full time as a Public Health Consultant and that work is very much a part of my vocation and so I have a particular interest in healing ministry.
Public Health Consultants are sometimes referred to as population physicians in that our responsibilities are to understand and respond to the needs not of individuals but of whole populations through commissioning of health services, infectious disease control and promoting health and wellbeing. Whilst the spiritual dimensions of health and wellbeing are often overlooked in public health, its emphasis on populations resonates with the recognition in the Gospel of the importance of community and of our care for one another.
Now in this evenings old testament reading we have heard some of the story of Jonah.
When commanded to visit Nineveh and prophesy to its inhabitants, Jonah had fled in the opposite direction. The ship he travelled in was caught in a great storm and when the sailors realised that Jonah was to blame he was thrown overboard only to be swallowed by a whale and 3 days later spewed out. Jonah eventually made it to Nineveh and prophesied that in forty days the city would be overthrown. Hearing this the people proclaimed a fast, the King put on sack cloth and ashes and seeing their repentance God spared the city.
A spectacularly successful mission then? Well as we just heard this evening Jonah didn’t see it like that. No, he despairs of God’s mercy and is angry. Why? Perhaps it is that it now appears that he is a false prophet? The destruction he has foretold has not come to pass.
Jonah has been saved from drowning and then from the stomach of a whale by God’s mercy but he doesn’t welcome the mercy that God shows to the people of Nineveh. Jonah is perhaps like the forgiven, though unforgiving debtor that we read about in the parable in Matthew’s Gospel who forgiven his debts by the King goes then has his debtors thrown in prison.
Johan’s sulk doesn’t end there though. He sits outside the city and a gourd grows up and shades him but when it withers he’s ready to throw in the towel “It is better for me to die than live”. When challenged that perhaps his response might not be justified he is insistent “Yes I do well to be angry, angry enough to die”.
Perhaps like me you see in Jonah’s responses some of your own tendencies? Discounting my own blessings, not always being generous about the blessings of others, and being very attached to my own comforts and opinions. We can see some of these tendencies in our society I think. For example in some of the public debate about welfare or refugees and the invective that people are willing to employ when disagreeing with others on social media.
What I’m going to offer you this evening is something of a diagnosis of the roots of Jonah’s unhappiness, of some of my failings and of those I’ve suggested too often characterise our society. What Johan lacked, what we often lack is something that we are assured we are given in Christ – namely God’s peace.
Jesus said “peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid”.
Why is it that what is apparently freely given is so often beyond us?
We tend to associate peace with everything going our way. The trouble is that proves to be very illusive. Even when everything does appear to be going our way, peace may still elude us. The Gospel suggests that our problem is that we seek peace in the wrong place, absorbed in our own fortunes rather than trusting in and drawing closer to God, who’s love for us never changes.
The first requisite for peace then is consciousness of our relationship with God. Recognising that we are beloved of God. I, you, we are all beloved of God! And what we receive we are called to offer back.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus summarises the law and the prophets, he says “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”.
Recognition that we are beloved of God despite our failings increases in us our empathy for our brothers and sisters with whom we share this same immeasurable gift.
You’ll notice that a common theme here is an emphasis on relationships. Relationships with God, with neighbour and with ourselves. We might add to this recognising our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation our relationship with the planet.
It’s interesting to note that different cultures have understood ‘peace’ quite differently. For the Roman Empire, peace, Pax Romana, was maintained through a brutal use of force that crushed any opposition or dissention. In contrast the Jewish understanding of peace – shalom, focuses on right relation and Jesus’ teaching strongly reflects this emphasis.
In Jonah we see a proud and uncharitable spirit, he obeys God’s command but he certainly doesn’t trust in him. He was neither concerned for, or desired the welfare of, the Ninevites. He was not humbled by the mercy that was shown him and was buffeted by events. When he couldn’t control them he was very quickly ready to give up. Some of us can identify with him I’m sure.
What the scripture emphasises for us I think is God’s presence and the reliability of his patience and mercy towards us. When assured of these despite our failings, our discomforts do not necessarily break us and observing the mercies granted others does not emitter us. Rather we may be humbled by the blessings we have received and more charitable towards others. In turn humility and charity do not weaken us, as worldly wisdom might sometimes suggest, but rather make us more resilient individually and collectively. Public health research actually recognises this, it’s referred to as social capital.
Returning to public health another term that’s some used to describe public health consultants is the ‘generalist specialist’ – because our attention is meant to be about the whole population rather than the individual patient or a particular system or organ. For me though the Christian faith provides what is a far wider perspective. It points to how we might live today without losing a sense of eternity. Of how we can live in the ‘peace’ that is freely available to us in Christ Jesus. When that peace feels that it is beyond us, I suggest to you my brothers and sisters in Christ that the Gospel’s prescription is to remember that you are beloved of God. Whatever befalls us nothing can separate us from that love of God. As the gospel tells us “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
To him be all glory, now and to the ages of ages.