The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but I’ve been reminded recently that it is easier to gain passionate support by denouncing something than by standing in favour of it. Against this union of Great Britain, against politicians, against the status quo, against change. I’ve been haunted by the shouts of ‘Never, never, never’ played on the radio and television as part of the obituaries of Ian Paisley from his protest to the Ango-Irish agreement of 1985.
It’s been a week of hauntings, with anniversary of the destruction of the twin towers and all the memories of that day which come back. Given the current situation in Iraq and Syria, the growth of support for ISIS among those against whom the government was discriminating, the dreadful things they they have done. The events of September 2001 seem to still be working their way out in our world.
In our New Testament reading, Paul, apparently speaking of quarrels within the Church. The Anglican Church today has no experience of these… warns us not to judge one another.
In the Gospel, Peter asks a question over how many times he should forgive somebody who has sinned against him - seven times?
The answer comes back from Jesus that Peter shouldn’t just forgive 7 times, he should forgive 77 times or 7 times 70 times. The text is a vague - either way the point is made - keep forgiving. It’s an easy throw away comment - not an easy demand. But then Jesus tells one of these parables about the Kingdom - claiming it helps to explain. Except, in this parable the King - the one we presume is God, only forgives his servant the one time. The message on the surface seems to be that if you don’t forgive other people, God won’t forgive you - a threat. Instead of helping to explain, the parable seems more like a nightmare. A story of the human fear we have of messing up, of being rejected by God because we have failed.
It seems pretty obvious, how could God bring God’s self to forgive us when we can’t even do the same to others. But then forgiveness is difficult. It can be difficult because forgiveness seems relentless. As a parent the acts of saying sorry and being forgiven seems at times like a continuous cycle. With brothers and sisters it’s even more endless. And sometimes it’s difficult to get to the point where true forgiveness in one’s heart is even possible. I knew the mother of one of the victims of the 7/ 7 bombings. She was a priest and after 7/7, forgiveness became too difficult for her, the act of celebrating the Eucharist, an act which at it’s heart a reminder of our nature as forgiven, was for her too painful an act for her to lead. As a society we regularly struggle to forgive those who we deem to have failed, be they politicians, the unemployed, criminals. In part because as a community we are judging a whole collection of people rather than dealing with individuals.
But today’s parable doesn’t actually start with a test. It starts with the King deciding to forgive his servant an apparently enormous debt. We can’t earn forgiveness from God, forgiveness, the outpouring of God’s grace, is a gift freely given. This is one of the basic beliefs of the church, we cannot earn our own salvation. Our lives should then reflect that gift, we shouldn’t just accept our good fortunes and carry on taking advantage of those who we can.
We should be shaped by the nature of the gift of forgiveness. I’m not saying we should be push-overs, we should be true about the cost of forgiving, but we should also develop our empathic imagination. Our ability to see people not simply in relation to us, in terms of how they affect us, but in relationship with other people and in relation with God. Seeking reconciliation and forgiveness needs us to try to understand one another and to see them as a fellow created being - not just a two dimensional assailant or victim.
The traditions of our faith help to shape us according to the gift of grace we have been given so that we too can forgive like God forgives us. Paul reminds us to observe the day in honour of God, to eat in honour of God, and so give thanks to God. In recent months, with the Trojan schools enquiry in Birmingham there has been a great number of questions raised over the existence of Religious schools.
Growing up in Canada, I was convinced that schools and faith didn’t mix and shouldn’t. Then I came to this country and started to train to become a priest. I quickly discovered I was going to have to deal with this particular belief of mine. What I discovered, apart from an amazing history of the Church’s service, was the inclusion of spirituality in the aims of the education system.
This isn’t a desire that all students go on Margaret’s retreat. But it is an intentional focus on encouraging children to be able to consider a world larger than themselves. Inspectors look for the ability of students to have self-confidence, good relationships and compassion. It needs them to understand the world around them and their place in it.
This sort of spirituality can be achieved in different ways. Practicing the art of apologising and forgiving over smaller things in the home and at school play a contribution in preparing us to deal with having to deal with big mistakes. But remembering God’s role in giving us each day, the clothes on our back, the food on our table, the roof over our heads. And remembering our equality with each other as subjects of the Creator, can help us to find a way of living with difference and ultimately to forgiveness.
In Judaism, a verse from Deuteronomy “Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God is one Lord. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” are remembered each day and kept on every door frame. Likewise simple prayers of thanks remind one that each day, each person, each meal is a gift from God.
Olivia and Samuel’s baptism, today, is another reminder of the part we play in a wider world. It reminds us of God’s love for us in seeking us out. And the work of God through our lifetime in shaping us into the image of Christ. Baptism, our prayers, the celebrating of the Eucharist, all remind us that we are a subject of God’s great generosity, it reminds us of God’s love and that we have been forgiven. Perhaps the real failing of the slave in today’s parable wasn’t that he failed to forgive, but that he failed to believe his debt had been forgiven. He was still trying to recover the debt for his master. How easy is it not to accept forgiveness, to carry on beating ourselves up, and allow that, rather than the love of our family and friends, the love of God for us, to shape us.
If we are sure of God’s love for us, God’s gift to us of life, not in competition with one another… but along with our friends and our enemies… we can find the scope for and the hope beyond hope to reconcile, the possibility to sit with our opposites and our enemies and not just begrudgingly share power with them, but laugh out loud in delight with them as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness did, because they and we are a gift of God. So it’s worth us saying each day: Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, by whose goodness we have this day to offer, we have ourselves to offer. Amen.