Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fish Guts and Mary

Sheepshead Bay
 U.S. National Archives
Sunday, December 12, 2011
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Last Friday, my twitter friend @mayog tweeted: "Joy is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells you to be scared and sad. That's the point of the Magnificat". In a single tweet of 140 characters she said what it took me 15 minutes to preach on Sunday. But for those of you who like my ramblings, here's the sermon. May you find joy.

Scriptures: Jonah 2 and Luke 1:39-56

When last we left Jonah, he had refused the call of the Lord to go to Ninevah, booked passage on a ship to go in the opposite direction, found himself in the midst of a large, angry sea storm, and was thrown overboard by his shipmates in order to appease God. As the waters closed over him and he began to drown, which it appeared he would rather do than go to Ninevah, the Lord sent a large fish to swallow him up. He sat in the stinking fish belly for three days and three nights. Did he know if this fish belly would be a place of safety or did he imagine he might die? It is not clear in the text if Jonah knew the fish had been sent from the Lord until he had time for reflection. I suspect the narrator would have been explicit if God said, “Jonah…I have sent this fish to save you from drowning and in three days time it will spit you out on dry land. Then you will go to Ninevah.” Instead, we are left with bare bones: Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, and then he sang a song of praise.

What would possess a person, stuck in the belly of a fish in the middle of the sea, cast out by shipmates as a danger to others, alone with thoughts of failure and death in front of em*, what would possess such a person to sing a song of praise?

I wonder how long it took Jonah to stop thrashing about in the belly of the fish. There is only so long a person can continue in full blown panic and anxiety before passing out from exhaustion. A few hours? A day? How long before Jonah stopped pounding on the sides of the fish?

Have you had moments like this? Moments when everything seemed closed down—all options exhausted, no daylight to be found, no open doors, no good choices anywhere you look? The rent is due and there’s no cash? Your loved one is sick and there’s no cure? You know what needs to be done, but depression’s grip is so tight you can’t move—you can’t get out of bed, you can’t care what comes next? Have you had moments like that? Moments where your regret is so deep and so cutting it seems you will bleed out right there on the kitchen floor? You’ve done something terrible and the whole world knows it. You didn’t pick up the phone and your friend committed suicide. Embezzlement, rape, an affair, you lied. Maybe it’s not so drastic--you disappointed your parents for the 300th time--this week. You came out about your sexuality and got a bad reaction. You got divorced and people had things to say. You got married and people had something else to say. Your child hoped you would finally make a soccer game and you had to work. Maybe nobody else knows what you’ve done, and it’s burning through your soul anyway. Trapped in the belly of a fish, cornered by circumstance, unable to see out of the small, unlit, smelly space you find yourself in.

How long do you flail about trying to force your way out the side of the fish? It works sometimes, but there was Jonah on the second day still in the fish belly, alone with his thoughts. I imagine he was hungry and thirsty, although a friend once pointed out that in the belly of a great fish there might be plenty to eat. Perhaps so, but I guess on day two I would still be hungry. Have you had one of those moments?

Years ago I applied to be the youth director of the church I attended. I had been a regular there for over ten years and served on the church council for four years. I was not the easiest of members or elders, I don’t think—I was fairly opinionated and not shy about voicing those opinions. My application to be the youth director was something of a surprise to the pastor, the members of the committee, the church council, and frankly, to myself. Now I can see that it was the perfect fit at the perfect time, but it seemed like a gamble in the moment.

I met with the pastor and the committee. Some concerns were presented; we talked through them. The committee recommended me to the church council, on which I was still serving. There was still business to attend for the church council, and so when it came time to discuss my candidacy for this position, the council excused me to wait in the pastor’s office while they conversed. They expected it to be a fifteen minute conversation. An hour later they came to get me. After fifteen minutes of sitting alone in the pastor’s office had gone by, my thoughts became haunted. I imagined that concerns were being raised in that meeting that couldn’t be answered in fifteen minutes. Every controversial word I had spoken returned to me as I sat there. I remembered saying, “Who needs the Bible?” in my early days as a member. I remembered expressing displeasure in a Bible study that the books of scripture were not in alphabetical order. The time when I was fourteen in the youth group and the youth leader had to separate me from a boy rose up like a vision of Christmas Past. My criticisms of how we did communion, the music we sang, the snooziness of worship. I remembered every meeting I was late to or had missed altogether. I remembered that I had worn jeans to serve communion. As I sat there forty-five minutes past the expected time, I felt trapped by all that had come before, knowing that I was powerless to change who I had been and that it was unlikely who-I-would-come-to-be-in-the-near-future would be much different than the past. I wondered if I would be deemed worthy of leadership or considered unsuitable to work with the youth.

There was no place to go with my thoughts. I certainly couldn’t just leave the meeting. I couldn’t interrupt the meeting to ask if they were done yet. In those days I didn’t have twitter and facebook to sit with me through my anxiety—and that was probably just as well. No need to compound my past sins by snarky tweets from the fish belly.

What was Jonah thinking about in his time alone on day two? Did he regret the trip to Tarshish? Was he angry with the Lord? Did he make bargains with the almighty about what he would do if and when he got out of the fish? Did he think he was dead in the water? Perhaps he used the time to reflect back on his life deeply. I wonder, if in that time of reflection he came to thinking of the joys he had found in his life? Perhaps amid the memories of transgression and stubbornness and refusal, which had landed him in a life-threatening situation, Jonah stumbled upon the good memories as well. Perhaps by the third day he had come to see the moments of love and joy and laughter that inexplicably mingle with our sorrows.

Close your eyes. Let’s take some time to remember. What kind of fish belly are you in right now, and what day are you on? Are you flailing about? Are you alone with your regrets? Do you see in the midst of the sorrows the glitters of joy? Think on it a minute—where are you this advent? Are you so packed with things to do that you don’t even realize you are in a fish belly?

Jonah’s song of praise and trust precedes the fish spitting him out upon dry land. Let me repeat that song for you:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

‘I called to the Lord
   out of my distress,

   and he answered me;

out of the belly of Sheol I cried,

  and you heard my voice. 

You cast me into the deep,

  into the heart of the seas,

  and the flood surrounded me;

all your waves and your billows

  passed over me. 

Then I said,
 “I am driven away 
from your sight;

  how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?” 

The waters closed in over me;

  the deep surrounded me;

weeds were wrapped around my head
  at the roots of the mountains.

I went down to the land

  whose bars closed upon me for ever;

yet you brought up my life from the Pit, 

  O Lord my God. 

As my life was ebbing away,
  I remembered the Lord;

and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple. 

Those who worship vain idols
  forsake their true loyalty. 

But I with the voice of thanksgiving

  will sacrifice to you;

  what I have vowed I will pay.

Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
To find his way out of the belly of the fish—to gain daylight and the perspective from which to see his options—there was first the necessity to find joy in his life. One might call Jonah’s attitude resignation—whatever you wish to do with me, so be it, Lord. But we might also find a hint of joy that in the midst of the impossible sorrow of his life (and maybe the end of his life) Jonah found a certain trust in God’s words to him and a purpose for his life. Not knowing if he would be given the chance to live out the call God had sent to him as a prophet, Jonah nevertheless promised to fulfill that call: “what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” In turning over control of his situation, Jonah made himself useful. In returning to the Lord’s call on his life, Jonah found purpose. In promising to do justice, Jonah found life. And then the fish spit him out on dry land. 

It is a risk to seek after joy in the midst of sorrow, depression, anger, and fear. We are called to sing out a song of praise without knowing how the end will turn out. When I emerged from the pastor’s office, I offered a muttered prayer, “Okay then, God. Your show.” No guarantees. No promises. And when I walked back into the church council meeting, they said, “We’ve decided to think about it. We’ll let you know.” As we closed that December meeting, we worshiped together and shared communion. We sang songs of joy and praise. And it was enough to remember I am who God made me to be, redeemed in Christ, and free to start again in the morning. Is this not what Jonah sang? “I am alive!”

As we make our way through the advent season, we are following the story of another person who sang of joy in the midst of difficult circumstances: Mary.**

The gospel of Luke tells the story of the birth of both John the Baptist and Jesus. John was born to a woman too old to conceive. Jesus was born to an unmarried virgin. Neither pregnancy should have been possible, and yet there they were. When the angel of the Lord visited Mary to tell her she would bear this child, Mary registered her objection: “How can this be?” But the angel pressed on: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And so Mary said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Then Mary, pregnant with the Christ child, traveled to see her relative, Elizabeth. As Mary approached, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy and suddenly both women were singing with joy and praise. “How can this be? Who am I? Can you believe it? Blessed are you! Blessed am I!” They sang for joy over the life they sustained with their bodies.

Mary sang for joy even though she was very young and pregnant with a child who was not of her husband/fiance. She sang for joy at the possibility this child held for the world’s salvation. She sang for joy that the prophecies would be fulfilled, that justice would be done, the hungry would be fed. She sang for all that had been and all that would come.

Mary sang even though a child would require (at the very least) creative explanation to Joseph, family and friends. She sang even though there are no guarantees in childbirth—this whole process was a risk to her and the baby. She sang even though a thousand things can go wrong before a child reaches adulthood. She sang even through the tremendous responsibility placed on her shoulders. In the gospel of Luke we do not get the angel of the Lord’s visit to Joseph, reassuring us that all was well with Mary and Joseph. Yet despite what she may have feared, despite what he may have said, Mary sang her song of praise and joy—this baby was to come, and the world would be changed, she would step out in faith: Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

She met her cousin, who greeted her with joy, and opening her mouth the Spirit poured out of her. To find joy in the midst of struggle is to open the doors to the prison. To sing of joy after three days of rotting in a fish belly is to be vomited out on dry land. To give oneself over to the risky joy of justice, love, and the dance of the Spirit is to be fully alive to the heart of God. Whatever else may come, there is that.

*Gender neutral pronouns are tricky. A lot of times there's another way of writing. But sometimes there's not. "Em" is the singular of "them" and stands in for "him" or "her" instead of tripping all over "one." Whether this is a good thing or not, ask the reader. I'll leave it up to em.

**I must admit at this moment, I am tempted into a flight of fantasy, imagining Jesus in the womb as Jonah in the whale. If this caught your fancy, then here's the sermon on Jesus' temptation to stay in the wilderness (maybe his Tarshish?).


  1. This is great, and timely for me. I wish I'd been at your church Sunday.

  2. I love this: "No need to compound my past sins by snarky tweets from the fish belly." :)

  3. Suemoon hehee. Truly I am learning times when I need to lock my phone away!

    Mark, I'm glad it hit the target.