Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack at Ss Peter & Paul and St Michael & All Angels on Sunday September 17th 2017
Friday was a day of contrasts. While driving in to Kettering, I listened, fascinated, to scientists talking about the impending end for the Cassini spacecraft, the end of a project that began over 30 years ago leading ultimately to the arrival of the Cassini spacecraft in Saturn’s orbit in July 2004. Since then data and wonderful images have been flowing back to earth, expanding our knowledge of the universe in ways that were unimagined with the project began; blowing our minds with the wonder and beauty of a world beyond ours. Humanity has achieved something extraordinary through joint endeavour spanning continents, demonstrating what can be achieved when people pool their resources and expertise. Prof. Michele Dougherty from Imperial College, London, a chief scientist involved with the mission said “We all come from different countries, from different cultures and we have worked spectacularly well together”. They have quite literally expanded our horizons – transforming our knowledge and understanding; enabling us to glimpse afresh the wonder, mystery and beauty of the universe.
While I was listening to all of this, there was an explosion on the London underground, now known to have been another terrorist attack. 29 people were hurt; remarkably and thankfully, no one died as a result. So within moments, we heard about the capacity of God’s people to achieve the unimaginably spectacular; but also their capacity to hurt, to terrify and destroy.
Today, as in ancient Rome, conflict is an ever present reality: there are people pushing at the boundaries, striving to deepen their understanding of the world around them and of God’s purposes in their lives and the life of the church. Others meanwhile are profoundly concerned that the truths handed down through scripture, religious and cultural tradition are being ignored, trampled even. People and communities are deeply divided, each believing that their reasoning or passionately argued viewpoint is the right one; parts of the Anglican Communion barely speak to one another! So differences risk blinding people to what is good for all.
Yet while we argue, disagree and fight amongst ourselves, God is at work in his universe – creating and recreating; at work among us building His kingdom, restoring and renewing. And so, this morning, St. Paul is looking us right in the eye; the issues facing the church in Rome may have been different, concerned as they were with dietary laws and appropriate religious observance. But the underlying principle is the same – judging and despising one another are not only to be ruled out; they are inconceivable actions if we truly grasp that one day we will all stand before the judgement seat of God.
Paul’s reaction is founded on tolerance of differences and respect for those who seem weak to the strong. This is a vital lesson for us in this age of multicultural encounters and global concerns. Two thousand plus years ago, when people prided themselves on not being tolerant of strangers, comes this early Christian who urged us to respect and tolerate what today we would call cultural and religious differences. We need to remember this as we contemplate the differences in our Anglican Communion, and the growing intolerance between, races, cultures and nations.
In this debate, Paul doesn’t pass judgement or come down on one side or the other. What he does say is that each person must follow the path that God has given them – living before God with faith and before others with consideration.
And so, Paul’s ethical thinking would seem to suggest that each person stands or falls before God alone, and each must be fully convinced in his own mind and fully accountable to the dictates of her own conviction. BUT the community has moral priority. And so the individual is constrained both by God’s judgement and the needs of others. Or if you like, the call to please God and one’s neighbour, not oneself. The dance of reciprocating love!
In a world where people and nations are becoming increasingly individualistic – looking to their own needs, so often at the expense of other peoples’ and other countries, Paul’s words should make us feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Peter probably thought he was being extravagantly tolerant in suggesting that forgiveness be offered seven times; after all rabbinical tradition limited forgiveness to three times for the same offence. Seven symbolized completeness and perfection. But Jesus expands this understanding beyond fullness to infinity – “Not seven, I tell you but seventy-seven” – and tells a story to illustrate his meaning.
The story concerns a slave, a man with an enormous debt. Josephus, the Roman-Jewish scholar of the first century, records that in the year 4 BC, the total taxes collected in Judea, Idumea and Samaria came to 600 Talents. The slave in our story owed 10,000 talents. In today’s terms, the slave owed billions!
But the king is not thinking just about the slave and his debt, but of the bigger picture – of the whole society of people he rules, and wishes to govern by example. He wanted the slave to see forgiveness in action and to learn for himself how to do it. So the king acts with magnanimity and compassion, wiping this slate of vast debt clean – something quite outside the experience of those who first heard this story, and all who have heard it since across centuries and generations.
But far from learning from this incredible generosity, the slave bullies and applies the strictest rules to recoup a relatively small sum from a fellow slave. In response, the king’s anger is directed at the slave who blatantly refused to show generosity, compassion and forgiveness when he himself had received beyond measure.
But the story also illustrates that as far as Jesus is concerned, forgiveness is all about the heart. His is not the balance sheet or spreadsheet mentality. There is no room here for measured out forgiveness. Real forgiveness comes from the heart, from a deep desire and bold intention to work generously to heal damaged or broken relationships – between individuals, communities and nations. And so the God who creates recreates and we share in the dance of reciprocating love.
Such forgiveness isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t cheap; in truth, I suspect it is the biggest challenge that any one of us faces.
Forgiveness is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong – that only papers over the cracks; and eventually those cracks will deepen, becoming a massive void or exploding in anger and rage!
True forgiveness and reconciliation is a risky undertaking – not least because it exposes our vulnerabilities and demands real humility. It is risky because, as the person who has hurt or injured another, I might not be forgiven. As the injured party, forgiving means abandoning my right to revenge, to pay back the perpetrator. All of it is exceptionally hard stuff to do! And in truth, how would I respond if someone threatened, hurt or killed someone I loved and deeply cared for. I honestly do not know. It is so easy to say ‘I forgive’ but so very hard to do. But the Gospels, the New Testament make it crystal clear to me that it is a risk I – we – must all dare to take.
And when we do, as countless examples from the S.A. Truth & Reconciliation Commission show, as examples from the Restorative Justice Programme here in the UK demonstrate, we are released from the anger, resentment or hatred that threatens to suffocate us; released in to the dance of reciprocating love; the new way of life that our Lord Jesus Christ came to proclaim.
But if our hearts are not open to forgive others, they are not open to the love and forgiveness of God who gives life! Martin Luther King said: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”
In a few moments we will join together in the words of the prayer that Jesus gave us: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. May God grant us the strength, humility and grace to live the words we pray. Amen