Sermons from St Faith's   

'Father, forgive...'

Fred Nye, Sunday, 24th July, 2016

‘Father, forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’.

First off, may I ask your forgiveness for taking some of the ideas for this morning’s sermon from an excellent book by Kenneth Bailey called ‘Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes’. It somehow seems appropriate, at a time when events in the Middle East are becoming increasingly important.

Forgiveness gives us all sorts of problems. How can anyone like Mohamed Bouhlel, the French Tunisian who massacred so many men women and children in Nice, be forgiven for what he did? How can we ever come to terms with the callous cruelty of the young gunman who murdered nine people in Munich on Friday evening? Can we really be expected to forgive such people, and if so – how? How can the peoples of Israel and Palestine ever forgive one another and seek common cause for the future? And how can those of us who enter into the Israel-Palestine debate on one side or the other, be reconciled amongst ourselves? In St. Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer Jesus gives us no final answers, but he does tell us how to pray for forgiveness, and how we can expect forgiveness to work.

When St. Peter asked how many times he was expected to forgive his brother, Jesus told him: not seven times, but seventy times seven. In other words mercy has no limits, and does not wait for repentance or an apology. The onus is on the wronged to forgive the wrong-doer. This expectation may seem misguided, crazy, but only from the perspective of our human weakness. This sort of forgiveness can come only from God’s awesome power. Christ forgave Peter for betraying him, and in his Passion he prayed for his tormentors in the very midst of their brutality. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians, Jesus set aside the record of our sins by nailing it, nailing it to the Cross.

But there is more: as well as stressing forgiveness for the sinner, our scriptures are also full of the need for justice. If we think again about the many conflicts in the Middle East today, would mutual forgiveness alone, even if it could ever be achieved, necessarily bring justice for all those, past and present, who have been oppressed and dispossessed? There has to be a will, or at least a hope, that wrongs will be set right. The world sees forgiveness as somehow weak, even cowardly. Yet it is possible for human beings to forgive sacrificially, while at the same time remaining angry, even very angry, at oppression and injustice of all kinds. A raging thirst for justice gives energy to forgiveness, while forgiveness tempers and purifies the thirst for justice. And without justice there can be no peace.

Of course we have the option of not bothering about justice at all. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus uses the Aramaic word ‘khoba’ which means both debts and sins. There is an old Scottish joke about the careful canny Calvinists liking to use the word ‘debts’, while the landed gentry, the Episcopalians, preferred ‘trespasses’. In fact we need both words. I need reminding that my ‘debts’, my failure to do what God requires of me, are just as important – maybe even more important – than my ‘trespasses’, when I act wrongly. Justice and peace are bought at great cost, and I  cannot hope for either by doing nothing, saying nothing, and keeping my head down.

But a thirst for justice is not the same as a thirst for vengeance. When we use the Lord’s Prayer we have to pray that we may see the difference between them and make the right choice! When terrorist groups like Isis and Islamic Jihad attack us they actually want us to seek revenge and to hit out. They are trying to stir up a backlash against ordinary Muslims, knowing that this will make their task of radicalisation so much easier. Even here, and impossible though it may be, Our Lord still asks us to seek justice before hatred and revenge.

The trouble is that fear often makes us behave irrationally. Lorens Van der Post who was interned by the Japanese during the Second World War, and who knew about real suffering, wrote this: ‘There is no power on earth like imagination, and the worst, most obstinate grievances are imagined ones’. In the Brexit referendum, communities with the least number of immigrants were the ones who felt most threatened by them, and who voted ‘leave’ as a result. These communities were for the most part in the poorer and more disadvantaged areas of our country, and they would have been sensitive to even a small increase in immigration. And so their fear was understandable: yet fear it was. It is when we feel threatened that we all find it hardest to accept, understand, and forgive. Perhaps we should pray that we are not brought to the time of trial.

The Lord taught us in his prayer that God’s forgiveness for us, and our forgiveness for each other, are inextricably entwined. Let us pray that we will always be true to that relationship, as we struggle to bring forgiveness and justice to the world for which Christ died.

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