By Mary Lee Talbot
Reposted from The Chautauquan Daily
“Love Your Enemies” was the title of the Very Rev. Tracey Lind’s sermon at the 9:15 a.m. Devotional Hour on Tuesday morning. “You have just heard some of Jesus’ more challenging words,” she said in reference to the scripture reading Luke 6:27-36. “This radical teaching is a commentary on our own lives.”
Lind began with a review of the history of the people of Israel. In the ninth century before the Common Era, the 10 northern tribes seceded from the kingdom of David. They were conquered by the Assyrians and taken to Nineveh. They intermarried with the Assyrians and became the Samaritans we know from the Bible.
In 597 BCE, Judea was conquered by Babylon and spent almost 50 years in exile.
“When they returned home,” Lind said, “they were fearful and embittered. They dissociated themselves from the Samaritans, because the Judeans believed the Samaritans had polluted the faith of Israel.”
She called the story of Jonah a “post-exilic Judean caricature.” Jonah wanted to avoid Nineveh, because the people there were “conquered and compromised.” When God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, he went in the opposite direction.
“Who are the Ninevites in your own life?” she asked. “How did he think he could hide from God? Have you ever tried to run away from God? Were you successful? Where did you go? My favorite psalm is 139; it reminds us that wherever we go, God is there.”
Jonah, Lind said, was a self-righteous and miserable fugitive. When the ship ran into a storm, the captain woke up Jonah to pray for survival. When his prayers did not work, the sailors chose lots, and the lot fell to Jonah. To the sailors, Jonah was “one of those people,” but they were reluctant to throw him overboard.
Once they did throw him overboard, the sea was calmed, and the sailors gave thanks to Jonah’s God, but Jonah did not drown. God sent a serpent, the symbol of Assyria, to swallow him.
“Jonah was saved by God in the belly of the beast,” Lind said. “Have you been rescued in an unexpected way? He had 72 hours of reflection, of hitting bottom, and then, he was figuratively reborn.”
When he was spewed out of the serpent, God told him to go to Nineveh, to preach to “those people,” and Jonah said yes.
“When was the last time you were given a second chance?” she asked.
Nineveh was so large that it took Jonah three days to walk across. The people actually listened.
“God relented as well. It was a fairy-tale ending; too good to be true,” Lind said.
But Jonah was not happy. He told God he would rather die than watch God be gracious to the people he hated.
“Shouldn’t he have been happy? Don’t be too quick to judge. Don’t we want our enemy to get what they deserve?” she asked. “God is so much wiser than we are. God wants to love all of us. God needed Jonah to understand grace.”
So God grew a bush over Jonah to protect him from the sun, and Jonah began to soften. Then, God destroyed the bush, and again Jonah complained.
“God asked Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about a bush that you did not grow and lived one day? Shouldn’t I be more concerned about Nineveh with 120,000 people plus animals?’ ” Lind said. “The moral is that God loves us all and we are called to share God’s love with those we don’t want to love.
“The very core, root of it all is that God’s love is absolutely, unconditionally available to all. To experience the mercy of God, we have to repent; we have to act with love toward those we hate. That is why the book of Jonah is read in its entirety on Yom Kippur. Jesus upped the ante on forgiveness. He told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who abuse us. It is hard to do.”
Lind shared her own struggle to forgive someone who had hurt her deeply. She went to a therapist and talked about the need to forgive the one who hurt her, but she was unable to. She told her therapist about her struggle to forgive, and the therapist asked why she needed to.
“I had assumed that this was a universal value. I told her ‘because Jesus said so.’ She asked why I would forgive someone who had not asked for forgiveness. I told her ‘because Jesus tells me I must,’” Lind said.
The therapist did not understand, and Lind left therapy.
“But, I became burdened by that anger and hurt. I became more frustrated over the years, because I kept trying to forgive but could not. I wanted to run away and throw in the towel,” she said. “Later, I went to see a spiritual director, and she said I needed to confess. I had not been able to forgive myself for not forgiving the person who hurt me. I got on my knees, and made my confession and asked God to forgive me.”
The spiritual director told Lind that she should pray for that person’s well-being until she was no longer angry.
“I said I would try, and she said just do it,” Lind said. “I began to do it every day, and the anger did soften and dissipate, and I began to feel compassion and pity for the person who hurt me.
“Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive. Peter thought seven times. Jesus said 77. In 12-step programs, you go to 90 meetings in 90 days. It takes that long to let go and forgive. How often do we pray the Lord’s Prayer, to forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, without thinking about the words? It has been 10 years since the original hurt, and there are some days that I still sit under my bush, but the world has moved on.
“On the cross, the heart of Jesus’ words were ones of pardon and compassion. Is there someone in your life who hurt you or those you love? Is there someone you need to pray for, forgive and love? Go and do likewise.”
The Rev. Natalie Hansen presided. The Rev. J. Lee Hill Jr. read the scripture. Hill is the senior pastor of Christian Fellowship Congregational Church in San Diego, a historical United Church of Christ congregation. It is one of three predominately African-American congregations in southern California. Rev. Hill is a fellow in this week’s New Clergy Program.
The Motet Choir sang “As Pants the Hart for Cooling Streams” based on Psalm 42. Tate and Brady arranged the psalm in 1898, and the melody comes from the hymnal Southern Harmony published in 1835. Crawford Thoburn arranged the setting. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, led the choir.