I love the book of Jonah for so many reasons. First of all, I find it very entertaining. Second, it is completely about forgiveness. But the forgiveness in this book is not the lofty notion of forgiveness that is overbearing and hard to achieve. It’s about the cycle of forgiveness that we all go through as human beings and the missteps and struggles we face in the act of forgiveness. Yes in this book we see the vertical, top down, forgiveness that God gives to the people of Nineveh and to Jonah. This is the type that I think we all are familiar with. The more interesting and meaningful form of forgiveness is represented in this book as human forgiveness. Human forgiveness of self and others, as seen in Jonah’s struggles as an unwilling prophet to a violent peoples. This will be what we look at today.
The reality is that we are all human and God expects that we don’t have this notion of forgiveness down. Forgiveness is a struggle, an internal conflict that we go through not just once but constantly. Sometimes we are successful in this struggle and let’s be honest sometimes we fail at it. We are human; we are not perfect. God expects us to struggle. And God’s grace covers us in those experiences. Making the decision to either forgive or not is a tough decision and either one leaves an impact upon the individual. Making such a decision is part of the hard work that God has left for us to grapple with.
This weekend we celebrate Labor Day in our country, but today I would like to take some time to talk about the hard work we all put in each year to live good lives, to live by the challenges that God has placed upon us all. I would like to talk about the work we put into forgiveness and how God shows in the book of Jonah that he honors such work whether we are successful in every attempt at it or not. God doesn’t give up on us when we struggle with forgiveness and understanding. We all labor on in our spiritual lives and development trying to lead good, healthy and happy lives. We all work to be good dedicated citizens of this world that God has given to us. But it can be tiresome and hard.
There are some instances in our world history and personal histories that are so horrific that we question whether we can or should offer forgiveness. These types of questions come up without any real clear right or wrong answers. Every time we are faced with the decision to forgive we are faced with these questions and many more. True forgiveness is a deep life changing experience when we are faced with it. And we are faced with it often because it is an event by event action.
I’m sure you all hear several stories of forgiveness in the news day in and day out as I do and there are times we might ask ourselves, “How can they just forgive?” They forgive because they have grappled with the questions and they have decided to free themselves from the effects of holding onto hate and pain. I remember asking such a question a few years back when there was that shooting at the Amish school in Pennsylvania that killed five young girls and injured five more. The families forgave. They went to the home of the gunman’s mother and asked her to stay and forgave her son. I struggled with their decision because being someone who has spent so many years working with children, I personally struggle and battle with the idea of people harming the innocence of childhood.
These Amish families had suffered a terrible and unthinkable lose. One father lost two daughters that day. Yet he was the first one to offer forgiveness and compassion to the shooter’s family. This does not mean that they feel less. It does not diminish the pain of that family or the horror of that day. But it means that they are focusing upon hope, love, and wholeness in God instead of the actions of evil in the world. A spokesman for the family is quoted as saying, “Ask God to provide new things in your lives, new things to focus on. That doesn’t take the place of what is lost. But it can give us hope and a future”. They took their focus off of their pain and put it into something that was more productive. They forgave and had mercy on the family of the shooter because they too were hurting and because God has given his grace to all humanity.
Though they forgave right away, in the days, weeks, months and years to follow they went through the process that Jonah went through in our scriptures this morning. Jonah went through a period of separation, purification, symbolic death, new knowledge and rebirth. Today we picked up when he had accepted the knowledge of what God called him to do the new knowledge phase, and he went to Nineveh reborn into a prophet. He went through the stages of forgiveness in those moments. Forgiveness of God’s call upon his life, forgiveness of himself when he was in the belly of the fish. When Jonah went to Nineveh to deliver God’s message of destruction and doom, the people were forgiven by God’s mercies even though their lives had been so heinous in his eyes that he was going to blot off of the face of the Earth. Our scriptures said, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity … and he did not do it”. But Jonah did not forgive in the same way. Jonah forgot all of his new found knowledge of the Holy, got angry, felt betrayed and started the process of forgiveness all over again by running away.
Forgiveness is a process. It is not something that is achieved easily or in one single way. There is still great debate around when and how to forgive and each faith has its own thoughts about how to live into forgiveness. But what we need to take away from our many many scripture passages around forgiveness is that it is a long process that might end in reconciliation and it might not depending on how grievous the offense or act and what we as flawed individuals are capable of handling when it comes to forgiveness. We are not called to be perfect in our understanding of how to forgive; we are not called to forgive every infraction in our lives right away. We are not called to offer up grace and wholeness that only God can give. But we are called to grapple with these questions about forgiveness. We are called to ask ourselves where we stand on something and why. We are called to try to go through the steps towards forgiveness and this may mean we need to lean on someone else for support.
We heard about the families of those Amish girls this morning. Their forgiveness did not come in a vacuum but it came out of the intense support of their religious community and the support of their loved ones. Neither is our forgiveness intended to come out of nowhere. Forgiveness is meant to create unity amongst people and to bring us into a closer bond with one another as we share our lives and experiences. We work towards the hope of forgiveness and the promise of a new future with the knowledge that God gives us the grace we need as we work hard through the steps. It is never easy. We are called today not to be judges of one another as we heard in our gospel reading. We are called not to be perfect. We are called to be compassionate and to be the support for one another as we work for something more meaningful. We are called to consider forgiveness, to explore our questions, support one another and to place compassion for self and others first in our actions and choice of words.
 Jonah 3:10, NRSV.
(based on Jonah 3: 1-10 and Matthew 7:1-5)