There is an episode of The West Wing. It’s election night and Otto is a young speechwriter for the Santos campaign. He is also in charge of the post-election speeches, and he starts the evening thinking this is a simple task: he needs a victory speech if Santos wins, and a concession speech if Santos loses.
Over the course of the night, the senior people on the campaign… correct his view.
Santos is Latino; there needs to be a speech that covers Santos winning the election, but not sweeping the Latino vote. Santos is from Texas; there needs to be a speech that covers him winning the election, but losing Texas.
And what if he wins the popular vote, but not the electoral college? And what if he wins the electoral college, but not the popular vote? What if the race is too close to call?
And what if two of those things happen at the same time? What if he loses the Latino vote… and loses Texas… and wins the election?
And here’s the thing: I am not a speechwriter on a presidential campaign. I am a pastor; and in my capacity as a pastor, I am non-partisan.
But… this is the Sunday after an election that both major parties said was the most important election in our lifetimes… maybe even the most important election in the history of our country. And the scripture reading for today… is Jonah.
And I wrote this sermon on Monday. And I recorded the video on Tuesday. And I recorded the podcast on Wednesday. And I was not going to write a bunch of different sermons for a bunch of different outcomes.
But even as I wrote this sermon on Monday, I knew something that would be true on Sunday no matter the outcome. No matter the outcome of the election, some of us were going to be disappointed… and maybe a little bit angry… and maybe a little bit scared.
And that Jonah’s story would be an important story today.
Nineveh is terrible. It is a city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty, with no end to its plunder… no end to its debauchery. The streets are lined with the dead. Heaps of corpses. Dead bodies without end. The people stumble over the bodies. (Nahum 3)
Take the worst things you can imagine—take the worst things from the most frightening campaign commercials—and put them in a city that it takes three days to walk across. And then make that city the capital of an enemy empire. And then imagine what those people in that city would do to a little girl… standing in a field… plucking petals from a daisy.
Nineveh is terrible. And the word of the Lord comes to Jonah and says, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
And Jonah knows two things. Jonah knows that Nineveh is terrible. Jonah knows that Nineveh is worse than terrible. Jonah knows that Nineveh is evil.
And Jonah also knows that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing. If Jonah goes to Nineveh—if Jonah cries out against the people of Nineveh—then the people might repent. And if they repent, then they might be spared; if they repent, they will be spared.
And Jonah does not want them to be spared. Jonah. Wants. Them. To. Suffer. So Jonah turns his back to Nineveh and goes the other way. Because Jonah hates Nineveh.
I don’t know where we are as a country right now. I don’t know where we are as I am writing this. I don’t know where we are as I am preaching this. But I get the sense that we are in the middle of an inflection point that has been building for years… for decades… maybe even for centuries.
It has become easy to think the worst of our political opposites. It has become easy to think the worst of everyone who just isn’t on our side.
It has become easy to think that everyone who believes that George Floyd should still be alive is a card-carrying socialist bent on eliminating the police and opening the borders.
And it has become easy to think that everyone who believes that we should support the police is a card-carrying fascist bent on deporting people of color and letting Wall Street profiteers run the country.
It has become easy to think that those people, whoever they are, are terrible. That they are worse than terrible. That they are evil. And that has become especially easy to think because there are politicians and pundits egging us on, and social media networks showing us only the most outrageous things.
And when we think that way… it also becomes easy to turn our backs and walk away. And, honestly, even after the election, I don’t think it’s going to get better.
Eventually—via the part of the story that we all know, via the part of the story that’s in every children’s story bible, via the big fish—Jonah ends up in Nineveh… and he cries out against the people of Nineveh… and the people of Nineveh change.
The people of Nineveh—from the king in his palace to the stray cats roaming the streets—put on sackcloth, and sit in ashes, and fast from food and drink. And they turn from their evil ways. And God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing… relents from punishing.
And Jonah is… livid. He goes outside the city. He sits down. And he says to the Lord, “Take my life from me. If Nineveh still stands, then it is better for me to die than to live. If Nineveh still stands, then I will turn my back on the whole world.”
Overnight, a bush grows up next to Jonah and gives him shade from the heat. And, for a while, Jonah is happy. And then, overnight, the bush withers away, and the sun beats down, and Jonah prays for death.
And God says, “You are angry about a bush for which you did not labor and which you did not grow. You are angry about a bush that came into being in a night and perished in a night. If you could bring that bush back, you would. And you think I should not be concerned about Nineveh, a city of a hundred-and-twenty-thousand people and countless animals? Who do you think I am?”
It has become easy to think the worst of our political opposites. It has become easy to think the worst of everyone who just isn’t on our side. And, honestly, even after the election, I don’t think it’s going to get better. There are still going to be voices—from politicians to pundits to algorithms—feeding our inner Jonahs… telling us to turn our backs on those terrible people… telling us to hate. those. evil. people.
And I’ll be honest, Jonah’s biggest problem wasn’t that he wanted to walk away from Nineveh. His biggest problem wasn’t even that he was upset that God spared Nineveh. His biggest problem wasn’t even that he was upset about the bush.
No. Jonah’s biggest problem was that he needed to be right. Even if that meant hating Nineveh so much that he longed for its fortresses to fall, for its rulers to be enslaved, for its people to flee into exile in the wilderness, and for its infants to be dashed to pieces. (Nahum 3)
Jonah needed to be right… even if that meant being bloodthirsty.
And I don’t know if Jonah could hear God saying, “You loved a bush, Jonah! Can’t you love these people?”
The God who we worship is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing.
The God who we worship does not turn their back on creation. Even when it is a creation of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty, with no end to its plunder. Even when there is no end to creation’s debauchery.
The God who we worship does not turn their back on us. Even when we turn our backs on creation. Even when we turn our backs on each other. Even when we turn our backs on God. Even when our spirits are bloodthirsty and want to win.
The God who we worship loves the world. Again and again.
And even after this election is over. Even if tensions continue to run high. Even if there are voices—from politicians to pundits to algorithms—feeding that part of us that longs to see those terrible people fall. That God who spared Nineveh… that God who spares us… will call us to turn towards our neighbor, no matter how different they may be, and love them.
Again and again. And again and again. And again and again. Until love is everywhere. Until we live together in the one true kingdom under the one true king, Jesus Christ. Amen.