March 7, 2016


I wonder when we talk about forgiveness in church whether everyone's eyes glaze over.  Borrrrring.........We have talked about it so many times before what is there left to say? We all know its the right thing to do. Most of us feel the words "grace and forgiveness" are the foundation - the essence- if you will, of our faith. It is what Christianity is all about. Here during lent, we talk about atonement - At One Ment with God through Christ, meaning the forgiveness of our sins and we forgiving others. All well and good. Perhaps the real issue is that why if we talk about it so much - if we believe in it so strongly - if it rolls off our lips like bees to  honey-Then why don't we just do it more often?
The old story of Jonah in the Bible is a story of God's great compassion and forgiveness compared to our seeming lack of it. You remember Jonah. Most of the time it is a story told about Jonah's disobedience and you better do what God is telling you to do in life, the first time around.
God calls Jonah and tells him to go to Ninivah, a very evil city, to tell the people they had better change their ways and quick or God was going to destroy the city. So Jonah, not wanting to go to an evil place decides he is not going to listen to God and so he goes in the other direction, by boat, to Tarish. On his way God sends a big storm to rock that boat. Everyone is afraid. Jonah confesses that it is his God, not theirs, who probably caused the storm, and so they throw Jonah overboard to appease Jonah's God. (As a sidelight to this story, the captain and crew convert to Judaism seeing what Jonah's God can do which proves even when we disobey God he can find a way to do some good out of it even though we are up to no good).

Jonah gets swallowed by a big fish, properly equipped with wet suit, decompression gear, and air tanks, and a couple of spinach squeezers like the astronauts or babies use; and Jonah lives there in the fish for three days and thinks things over. By this time the fish has a bad case of indigestion with disobedient Jonah in his stomach and spits Jonah out onto the beach and God again tells Jonah to go to Ninivah and before God can finish plugging in directions on Jonah's I-phone, Jonah is packed and on his way.

Now, although the real story hasn't begun yet, I want us to note something here: God tells Jonah the exact opposite thing that your mother or grandmother use to tell you which was to stay away from trouble - stay away from the bad guys - the unsavory crowd - be good and associate with the right kind of people. Who can blame Jonah for not wanting to go to Ninivah. Where people lie and cheat; are maybe lazy and irresponsible; very different than him; (I would say going to Ninivah is like going to Las Vegas but I know some of you love Vegas....) But it is going someplace you would rather not be and among folks that you would rather not be with ........maybe like going to bad neighborhoods, or war torn Syria, or a Donald Trump rally).

But Jonah goes and tells the people to repent and OMG - they do. From the King to the commoner--they sit down in ashes, they fast, the put on sackcloth....even the cows repent the bible says. Sure they are humble and contrite but more to the point, they take their sin and their present condition seriously. They know they need to change. Always the first step in repentance journeys- being honest with yourself - seeing yourself and the world differently than you did yesterday - or a moment ago.

Now here is what we read this morning - Jonah's reaction to all of this. Instead of being glad; Jonah is angry. His original self righteousness, that he was not going to go among the evil Ninivites - it just wasn't his job - has turned to an indignant self righteousness toward God for forgiving them- A people that no more deserve forgiveness than the man in the moon. He says : "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity". Jonah's angry that God is so ..well...different than him - thinks so differently - has a whole different perspective on the world....1.) Jonah is angry that he has been good his whole life and these other folks bad....and yet everyone receives God's mercy. 2) He is angry that he has to take the trouble to do God's bidding -to be a conduit for grace - when we know God is always merciful in the end anyway. 3) He wants these people properly punished not forgiven and is P.O'ed that life doesn't always work out that way.

So there is kind of a story within a story in the last chapter, Jonah is so mad at God and life that he wants to kill himself, so he wanders off into the desert. God wants to give him more time to think this decision through so he send a gourd, a plant with big leafs to shade Jonah; and the next morning God sends a worm to kill the plant; and Jonah is now at wits end until God speaks again to Jonah and says: " why are you so mad and upset about this weed which grows up and dies in a day - you did nothing to water or cared for it - it has no real blood in its veins - no heart in its chest; and yet you have no compassion for the people of Nineveh or even the cute little dogs and cats who live there" . And to tweak Jonah's conscience even more God says- the people of Ninivah can't even tell their left hand from their right - in other words --they are not real bright. Don't they even get a low IQ handicapped exception from Jonahs judgement?
Now like Jonah I know a bunch of people who do not deserve my forgiveness......in fact.....I know a whole bunch of people who I hope, down deep in my heart of hearts, God doesn't forgive too quickly.  I don't want them damned or to go to hell...I am not out for blood revenge. But as long as they are acting the way they act, I do not want things to go well for them in life. And somehow I want to see payment for their sin before we start talking about forgiveness.   Do you know anyone in the world like that?

We also read this morning from Jesus famous parable of the prodigal son. A young son squanders his inheritance from his still alive father and the father compassionately welcomes him home with open arms while the older faithful and dutiful brother wonders what in the heck is going on with the morals of his family and world. Two stories: One public - one personal; one of God's forgiveness and grace upon a whole  people's - a city - a tribe; and the other of personal forgiveness for a family member; but both showing with Jonah and the older brother, how often this is so hard for us to accept and to emulate

I want to tell you something for all the non Christians out there.. Being compassionate and forgiving is good for your health. It is in your self interest. If you are compassionate and forgiving it will make you healthier, and God will forgive you for being so self centered. You get a pass for doing well while doing good. But it is true. According to Stanford researcher Dr Richard Luskin recently head of the forgiveness project; forgiving others, forgiving yourself, thinking compassionately will make your life better and you will live longer. When you pray for your enemy...your blood pressure goes down. When you are angry and mad and resentful your heart is physically in distress. When you actually speak a loving compassionate holy thought, (a mantra, a kind or forgiving word) you breathe better. Like a list of New Years resolutions for a happier life: Exercise, eat your vegetables; get 8 hours of sleep every night; forgive others, will actually make you feel better.

But there is more to forgiveness than good physical health. It is good mental and social and spiritual health.   Desmond Tutu, out of a hideous apartheid past has said:    
          "To forgive is not just to be altruistic.  It is the best form if self-interest.  It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger.  These emotions are all part of being human.  You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things:  The depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.  However, when I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person.  A better person than one being consumed by anger and hatred.  Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator.  If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.  You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person, too.
There is a difference I believe between the challenge to forgive globally and locally - between Jonah's challenge and that of the older brother.  Some say we can distain or imbue with evil, other peoples, groups or countries, because we feel they are so different than us. They are far away or have different cultures or backgrounds. But sometimes it may be actually harder to forgive those close to us. The psychology of guilt and forgiveness can be quite circular and self perpetuating.......sometimes we condemn in others the sins we are most afraid of in ourselves; sometimes we nurture grudges because we like to feel superior... like older brother - it feels right to be angry because its justified- the other did something wrong and they deserve to get their due. Sometimes its the opposite, we enjoy the role of being a victim in the grievance...so and so is so mean to me or dislikes me and I need your sympathy and I can't do anything about it. When we do this it ends up making us feel worse, feeling unworthy of love or unworthy of being treated well and then we end up not treat ourselves very well. Feeling unworthy or guilty can sometimes encourage us to act out and do more negative things, seeking attention, punishment, or a convoluted way out of it all.
From the biblical perspective (at least according to our stories today) forgiveness, comes down to compassion. That is what God had and Jonah did not and what the Father had and the elder brother did not. It is what Jesus was all about. What he constantly "harped on" if you will. It is God's central quality and the central quality of a life lived in God (Borg). Want a scripture to memorize "Be compassionate as God is compassionate".  Compassion - feeling with - the ability to act like, imagine yourself, be someone's father or mother.   Folks you do not know/folks you dislike/folks you have become so accustom to that they bother you. (Paul of course says it very dramatically - He lists all the so called religious qualities - you can be a prophet or preacher, you can have the strongest faith of all; you can understand the mysteries of the universe; you can give your possession away like St Francis; even sacrifice yourself for others like jesus - but if you do not have love ---doesn't mean a thing. (In fact -I just made an executive decision -that is the only membership question I will ever ask if someone wants to join this choice---Will you love - Will you be compassion)

We have to get rid of this idea that forgiveness is contrary to justice or righteousness. Remember Jesus came not to judge the world but to redeem it. And our job is the same - move all that we see and touch and are around toward reconciliation. Compassion does not ignore justice and righteous, it quickens it and brings it to be in a more fuller complete sense. The rich young ruler probably did have too much money but Jesus had compassion; the women at the well was looking for love in all the wrong place but Jesus had compassion; Zacchaeus probably was a crook and a cheat but Jesus had lunch at his house anyway. The road to justice and righteousness goes through compassion not around it. 

Forgiveness is a serious subject. For God's sake, let us remember Holy Week and where the great compassion of Christ ultimately led him. How many folks are here today in worship 60, 70, 80? By mid night tonight the angels should record at least as many new acts of forgiveness as there are us gathered.  A call to an old friend or family member who perhaps never expected you to call again. A good word to someone about your Christian belief in ministering to strangers, our brothers and sisters from Mexico or Syria. Realizing in prayer that if God has forgotten your sin then it does you no good to keep on remembering it. Joyous acts of forgiveness - and the world will be a better place and you, happier and living longer to his glory. Amen

Sermon by Bob Bell 3/6/16


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