Column by Mary Lee Talbot
“Sorry! calls itself a sweet game of revenge,” said the Rev. Zina Jacque at the 9:15 am Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. The title of her sermon was “Sorry,” and the scriptures were 2 Kings 1:9-10 and Luke 9:51-56.
In the game of Sorry!, each player has four tokens to move around the board to get back to their home square. If someone else lands on an occupied square, the new player knocks the other player back to the start, hence “Sorry!”
“Revenge is as old as humankind,” Jacque said. “Its history began before courts as a way to say ‘Don’t mess with me, don’t come this way again.’ Revenge is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Humans may even be hard-wired for revenge, whether to teach someone a lesson before language; to save face; to get even; or to get power.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is going to Jerusalem but had to go through Samaritan territory to get there. The bad blood between Jews and Samaritans began after the reign of Solomon. The kingdom of David split and 10 of the tribes of Israel formed the northern kingdom and two of them formed the southern kingdom. They never came together again. “They were the Hatfields and McCoys of ancient times,” she said.
James and John reacted to the hostility of the Samaritans by asking Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans. Jesus rebuked them. Their request harkened back to a story about Elijah.
In 2 Kings, King Ahaziah fell through the roof of his palace and sent messengers to Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, to ask if he would recover. An angel spoke to Elijah, who told him to intercept the messengers and ask, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?” Elijah told them to tell Ahaziah he would die.
The messengers returned and delivered the message. The king sent a company of 50 men to Elijah and the captain said, “Oh, man of God, the king says to come down.” Elijah responded, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down and consume you and your 50.” The fire did come down and consume them.
The king sent another 50 men and the same thing happened. The king sent a third group. This time the captain fell on his knees and asked Elijah to let his life and the lives of his men be precious in Elijah’s sight. An angel told Elijah that he could trust the captain and to go down with him.
“James and John knew this story and when the Samaritans blocked Jesus’ path to Jerusalem they asked if they should call down fire on these people,” Jacque said. “The Vulgate translation adds a verse after Jesus rebukes them. He says, ‘Don’t you know the spirit you are from?’ ”
She continued, “We are not from the spirit that poisons, that puts hate in our hearts, that calls down fire. Revenge makes you feel worse; it makes you feel decrepit in your soul and it might backfire. Two wrongs don’t make one right.”
Jacque shared the story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel. In 1993, Israel was at a party and got into a fight that ended when he shot Johnson’s only son, Laramiun Byrd. Israel served 15 years in prison. Johnson went to visit him after about 12 years.
Johnson had been to the trial and she wanted to see if Israel was the same person he was as a 16-year-old. She talked to him about her son and Byrd became a real person to Israel. When Johnson hugged Israel as she was leaving the prison, she thought to herself, “I just hugged the man who murdered my son.”
Johnson realized at that moment she had dropped all the hurt and anger she had been carrying. They now live beside each other and call each other “Mom” and “Son.” She is looking forward to seeing him graduate from college and maybe someday get married.
Jacque made the gesture sometimes called “mic drop,” opening her hand and letting go. “We are called to forgive, to release, let go, to take all the baggage of what has been done to you and put it down,” she said. “To forgive is an antidote to revenge. You are no longer carrying what is slowly killing you.”
To forgive does not mean to forget, but to remember and learn. “Have you made room in your heart to drop what burdens you?” she asked the congregation. “Have you made a space for love, to forgive as you have been forgiven? There is a quid pro quo in the Lord’s Prayer. When we are able to forgive, we make space for God to pour forgiveness into us.”
James and John thought they were right, but “when we hold on to revenge and believe we are right, we set boundaries on sinking sand,” Jacque said. “We have to let go so there is room for grace, so we can be part of the healing.”
She asked the congregation, “What baggage are you holding? What have you been holding onto that is weighing you down with anxiety, what you did wrong for which you can’t forgive yourself?”
God is a God of grace, and grace comes to us undeserved. God’s mercy is when we don’t get what we deserve. “God has so far removed our pain that we can forgive, be redeemed and be restored,” she said.
Jacque continued, “Do you believe it? Do you believe you are beloved of God, a child of God, washed clean? What game of revenge are you playing? Let go! God, let us know the truth by virtue of your forgiveness.”
The Rev. John Morgan, pastor of the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, presided. Willie La Favor, a member of the Motet Choir and chime master at the Miller Bell Tower, read the scriptures. The Motet Consort performed the prelude, “Trio for Flute, Oboe, and Piano,” (2023) by Joseph Musser. The consort featured Barbara Hois, flute; Rebecca Scarnati, oboe; and Joseph Musser, piano. The trio is dedicated to Ms. Hois and Ms. Scarnati. The anthem, performed by the Motet Choir, was “Verleih uns frieden,” music by Felix Mendelssohn and words by Martin Luther. The choir was under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, and accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar. Stigall played “Postlude on Lauda anima,” by Robert Powell, as the postlude. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Harold F. Reed, Sr. Chaplaincy and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion.